“No right” to judge women lawyers on appearance

Delahunty: Different court voice

It is about time that men and women realise that they have “no right to judge a woman’s commitment to and ability to do her job based on her appearance”, a leading QC has declared.

She said junior female barristers who wore a ‘full face’ of makeup found themselves “subject to criticism that they aren’t serious about the job. If they wear no makeup at all, they haven’t tried hard enough”.

Professor Jo Delahunty QC – for whom red lipstick is a “trademark” – said that “what I wear, as long as it is within our code of conduct, is a matter for me. Whether I wear makeup is up to me to decide”.

Writing in the Bar Council’s magazine, Counsel, Professor Delahunty – who practises from 4PB and is a recorder – said that, when she qualified in 1986, few women stood out as role models given her comprehensive school background.

“[The leading women barristers of the time] seemed very remote from me – and they were. Not just in terms of their background and their rank but also how they talked and what they wore.

“I started as a pupil at a time when Sloane Rangers ruled the style books for the affluent or aspiring professional. That wasn’t my style. At this stage women barristers were still not allowed to wear trousers in court [a situation that did not change until 1996].

“My state of dress in the 80s and 90s caused some judges to take issue. I was not a ‘pie-crust collar’ type of woman. I wore Mao-style fitted suits enlivened by bold gold and silver daggers of Butler and Wilson jewellery.”

Professor Delahunty said she thought nothing of this until a judge said he “could not hear” her because of a silver brooch she was wearing under her gown.

“Taken aback, I asked why a silver brooch was offensive when my opposing barrister’s visible and very arresting bold red braces were not. My case was put back.”

She agreed with her then head of chambers, Michael Mansfield QC, to remove it so as not to put the client’s case at risk, but Mr Mansfield then wrote to the judge to complain.

Professor Delahunty admitted that she has “often wondered where I have compromised my gender in my drive to succeed at the Bar”.

She cited a 1978 careers advice book which advised readers: “An advocate’s task is essentially comparative, whereas women are not generally prepared to give battle unless they are annoyed. A woman’s voice, also, does not carry as well as a man’s.”

She said: “Women like myself and others I have long admired, like Helena Kennedy, do not just ‘give battle’: we invite it, revel in it, fight to win and do so with panache and skill.

“We dance with words and when compared to a man we can proudly adopt this line (apropos Fred Astaire’s skills): ‘Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards and in high heels.’”

But the QC acknowledged that she has created “a different court voice” – “deeper and slower than my Finchley estuary accent”.

She continued: “Why did I do that? Because voices matter in court and a male voice gets ‘heard’ more easily than a woman’s.

“But I do not seek to emulate masculine traits; as a 5ft 2 woman, that would be ridiculous. I still wear statement jewellery to court, save now I have multiple ear piercings to put more jewellery in.

“It has not been until this year, and recently, that the significance of what we women choose to wear has been embraced publicly by the most senior members of our judiciary: consider Lady Hale’s spider brooch…

“Lady Arden is reported to have said in Cambridge recently that the brooches worn by the Supreme Court justices are ‘a symbol we don’t have to conform’. I welcomed that comment. Dare to be different.”

Professor Delahunty concluded: “It is about time that men and women realise that they have no right to judge a woman’s commitment to and ability to do her job based on her appearance.

“We live and work at a time when an MP (now the prime minister) thought it OK to call a man a ‘big girl’s blouse’ as an insult and the former PM a ‘big girly swot’ to ridicule and undermine him. Those comments were sexist and puerile. But for long as they raise a titter, we have work to do.”

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