Dame Maura McGowan High Court judge
At what sort of age was it that you knew law was the career path you wanted to take?
I had no idea of what I wanted to do at university or afterwards until sixth form - this was much more common back then than it is now. I was encouraged by teachers in different directions, but I realise now that the suggested options were all based around the same view of me, and they stirred towards a career as an academic or a politician. It wasn't until another girl in the same debating team as me suggested that I should think about a career at the Bar, that I even considered doing law. The clue is in the phrase "debating team".
How did you find your university experience - what societies were you a part of?
I had looked forward to going to university so much that there was a risk that it would be a disappointment or anti-climax. It wasn't. I loved it. We were under less pressure than students today as we were lucky enough to be able to have lots of fun amongst all the hard work and not as many financial pressures. I think I probably joined every society that existed in the first term, but that was just being a child in a sweet shop. When I settled down a bit more, I realised that I would get more out of things if I was more selective. I remember enjoying the film society particularly. It sounds Victorian now, but we didn't have any other way of seeing films apart from on the TV or at the cinema, so it was a fantastic opportunity to see foreign or obscure films that weren't available elsewhere.
What challenges have you faced personally throughout your professional career?
Being a woman has been progressively less determinative of change in my career. It hasn't gone away, but it has got better. I don't want or expect special treatment, I just want to be treated the same as a man with the same ability, or lack of it, as me. I'm not sure any offence is intended but explicit or implicit references to being promoted because of gender is actually quite offensive. It does tend to translate as, "you wouldn't have got the post if you were a man because you're not good enough." Even friends do it unthinkingly. Things have changed a lot in terms of direct bias but we still have some way to go in terms of unconscious bias.
How do you believe the different genders are represented in the judiciary system?
It was much easier to find pupillage when I started but almost as difficult to find a tenancy. The real difference was that there were fewer people coming through then. For a woman getting started in 'crime' was much harder than for men. There was a view in the profession that family law was the area that women should go into to, but it was even stronger amongst clients who were often entirely opposed to being represented by a woman. When I finally got a tenancy, unlike my male colleagues, it was conditional upon my doing "my share" of family work. The picture has changed enormously since then. Women are joining in equal numbers but, more importantly, they are staying in practice and reaching the top of the profession in much greater numbers. We still lose too many well-qualified women who don't come back after children, and sadly that may be increasing again because of the cuts in fees meaning it's uneconomic to pay for expensive flexible child care out of a publicly funded income.
How would you help advise a law student who wasn't sure what kind of law they wanted to work in, e.g. commercial, criminal, family, etc?
The choice of which area of practice is very personal. It depends on an honest assessment by each individual of their strengths and weaknesses. Choice will substantially be determined by the balance of advocacy to advisory work that will suit. Do you think your skills will match a court-based or desk-based practice? Are you better with people or paper? How important is how much you will earn? Do you have other skills, such as an expertise in science, that might push in a particular direction, such as patent work or a medical background which might push you towards medical negligence work?
Which women personally inspire you?
We should all be inspired by any person who has triumphed against the odds. So women like Indira Grandi, Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher are inspirational. I dislike all their politics in different ways but what they achieved in their respective countries, in the 60's and 70's, was absolutely remarkable. The same is true of women novelists from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf who succeeded in the male world of literature and Frida Kahlo in art. They are all models of perseverance and a determination to succeed. Nobody can fail to find inspiration in Malala Yousafzai and what she has done, despite being so young. Women are no longer such exceptions in most areas but what's really encouraging is seeing younger women of real talent who have also taken charge of their own careers, especially people like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé.
What do you like to read?
It's sometimes difficult to find time to read purely for pleasure. When I do, if I want to simply relax, I will go back to old favourites. When time is short, there is nothing better than Dickens. They are the best stories and written in instalments, so you can pick it up and put it down or you can read a chapter at a time on the bus or tube. I am making myself learn to read on an e-reader which is so much easier for travelling but there is no substitute for a real book with real paper. I read and re-read Hardy, Trollope, Austen, the Brontes - they are still the greatest stories and characterisation even if set in another world. I also read contemporary fiction: Peter Ackroyd is my current author and I'm halfway through The Fall of Troy at the moment. My favourite so far is Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, it is a wonderful book. Ackroyd is an extraordinary writer, his novels are superb but his biographies of people and cities are equally brilliant.
Do you consider yourself to be a feminist?
I do think of myself as a feminist. I would be proud to be given any label that describes me as an egalitarian. I think the waste of talent is sinful, that's true for everybody, but when the talents of women are wasted by society as a whole that is unforgivable. We have lost so much by failing to give women, and other groups, equality of opportunity to contribute. Giving women the confidence to recognise that they have a contribution to make and encouraging society to understand that they are losing the benefit of that contribution should be everybody's aim.
What is the one piece of advice you have picked up over your professional life that can apply to any career and you would like to pass on?
I think some women joining the profession now still have to deal with the problem of a lack of self-confidence. The skill, talent and qualifications are all there but it's not always external influences that stop some women from achieving all they're capable of achieving. Sometimes it's our own lack of confidence.
For more information, click the links below:
St Mary's. College, Leeds
A-Levels: English, History, Pure Maths, General Studies
University of Manchester
Barrister at 2 Bedford Road, London and Lincoln House Chambers, Manchester
2001: Took silk
2010: Deputy High Court judge
2012: Vice-Chairman of the Bar Council
2013: Chairman of the Bar Council
2014: High Court judge (Queen's Bench Division)
A judge of the High Court of Justice since 2014, our latest email interview with Dame Maura McGowan covers unconscious bias, law specialisation and why she personally admires Beyonce...
What did we learn from Maura?
An unconscious bias exists - when it comes to comments on promotion with regards to gender and this bias is something that needs to be sourced and addressed.
Sometimes you find career inspiration in unlikely places - and it may have not been in any of the directions you had previously been pushed towards.
Once upon a time it was harder for women to get into the 'crime' route than men - and women were expected to go into family law. This is something that has changed over time though.
When it comes to deciding what kind of law you want to go into, this is a strictly personal decision - and you really need to look into your own strengths and weaknesses.
Learn about your historically inspirational women, which is something Maura clearly knows a lot about - when discussing which women inspire her, she talks of women from all sorts of professions, not just from law.
Wasting the talent of young women through their lack of confidence is "sinful" - and this is the biggest barrier against women realising their full potential.
"what's really encouraging is seeing younger women of real talent who have also taken charge of their own careers"
Took silk - to take silk is to be appointed a Queen's Counsel (QC), a prestigious award amongst jurists. The 'silk' part comes from the material of the gowns that they are from then on allowed to wear.
Bar Council - this is otherwise known as the General Council of the Bar, and the association ensures that the Bar is working to its optimum in terms of its ethics and diversity. It also seeks to improve the standards and services of the Bar.
Pupillage - this is an apprenticeship that all trainee barristers must take whereby they spend a year shadowing a practising barrister. It is the final part of a barrister's training.
Tenancy - after you have finished your training, the next step is to find a long-term place in a barristers' chambers, otherwise known as a tenancy.
What do you like, what do you not like, what was useful, what should we have asked instead? Please give us your feedback