| 18°C Dublin

Senator Ivana Bacik: A courageous trailblazer in law

The appointment of Ms Justice Susan Denham as Chief Justice has been widely welcomed.

This appointment is particularly welcome, not just because of Ms Justice Denham's own experience and ability, and her impressive record in bringing about reforms in the court service.

It is also especially significant because she is the first woman to be appointed Chief Justice in Ireland. Back in 1992, when she was appointed to the Supreme Court, she was the first woman judge on that court; and she is still a trailblazer for women now.

It is also significant that her appointment follows that of Maire Whelan -- the first ever woman Attorney General. As others have noted, this means that the two highest legal offices in the land are held by women for the first time; a real achievement and one that undoubtedly signifies the immense progress that women have made in the legal professions in recent years.

This progress is very recent indeed. Just eight years ago, in research that I conducted with Trinity College colleagues a study into discrimination in the legal professions in Ireland called Gender In Justice (Bacik, Costello and Drew, Trinity College Dublin Law School, 2003), we found that male lawyers still overwhelmingly outnumbered women at the top levels of both the solicitors' and barristers' professions, despite the fact that women had outnumbered men among law students for years.

We found that only one in five judges were women; and among barristers, only 9pc were senior counsels. In the 12 biggest solicitors' firms in Ireland, women made up only 24pc of partners.

It seemed that women were not even hitting a 'glass ceiling' in law; rather, they were relegated to a 'sticky floor'. To find out why women were not making more career progress, we surveyed a large number of lawyers, both male and female. We found that barriers to women's promotion existed in all sorts of ways.

For example, women solicitors were excluded from golf outings at which important business was discussed; judges treated women lawyers differently in the courtroom.

More than one third of the women lawyers that we surveyed had experienced the use of sexist or inappropriate language; 30pc felt excluded from social networks essential to furthering their careers; and 14pc had been harassed or bullied in the workplace. Many lawyers referred to an 'old boys culture' that they believed was still dominant in their workplaces.

It is in this context that the appointment of Ms Justice Denham is so especially welcome. It is vitally important in any democracy to have a representative judiciary, and we are now approaching that at last. Over the last eight years, perhaps women lawyers have finally broken through that glass ceiling.

Senator Ivana Bacik is the Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology at Trinity College Dublin