Dame Maura McGowan

High Court Judge

"For a woman, getting started in criminal law 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 among clients who were often entirely opposed to being represented by a woman."

By Isabella Ford 

Interview from 2015

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Education History​​:

  • A-Levels: English, History, Pure Maths, General Studies

  • University of Manchester
    Degree: Law 

Employment History​​:

  • 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)

Q&A

At what sort of age did you know 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".

 

What challenges have you faced 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 criminal law 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 among 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 characterisations, 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 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.

 

 

 

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