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Research Case studies

Addressing the Gender Issues of the Twenty-First Century

Women judges – still an oxymoron?

Women now make up fifty per cent of law graduates and trainee solicitors, but nonetheless, the structure and culture of the profession remains problematic for women, and its higher echelons are still largely male.

A current study by Hilary Sommerlad, Director of the Centre for Diversity in the Professions at our University, aims to contribute to our understanding of why women are still largely outnumbered in the judiciary despite the current mainstreaming of discourses of diversity and equality.

The project’s findings have formed part of the evidence considered by the advisory panel appointed by the Ministry of Justice, in their investigation of how more women can be appointed to the judiciary.

The research is based on an in-depth study of sixteen women judges, five of whom are from minority ethnic backgrounds, and who have varying lengths of service.

Hilary found that despite an appearance of progress, many obstacles identified in her previous research remained and new ones had appeared. The increase in the numbers of women judges is counterbalanced by their confinement to less prestigious areas, which have now become feminised.

All respondents described the persistent masculinity of the judiciary, especially evident in social arenas, which they found difficult to inhabit but where the important business of networking is conducted. The research also highlighted the impact that working patterns have on women’s career opportunities.

Whilst few women recounted incidents of direct discrimination, their narratives nevertheless pointed to the barriers posed by the tension between their judicial identity and stereotyped femininity. The assumption of middle-class masculinity in the judiciary was constantly reinforcing its cultural practices, which tend to marginalise those who are ‘different’ and undermine women judges’ claims to judicial authority.

Alternative leisure and gender

The publication of a second book by Dr Samantha Holland, a Research Fellow at Leeds Beckett, focuses on pole dancing classes. Pole classes are of particular interest as they fit into many current academic and cultural debates about shifts in society and changes in leisure, sport and exercise.

Research on an international scale

Pole addresses, for example, issues about the sexualisation of culture; body image; gendered leisure time; and sport and exercise fashions. Sam conducted thirty-seven interviews with instructors and students in the UK, Sydney and New York. The participants were aged between eighteen and sixty years old.

An online questionnaire was also sent to nine pole schools worldwide which resulted in 135 responses. The questionnaire data provides an internationals overview of who is doing pole, why and where, and what pole means to women who do it, alongside the more detailed stories gleaned during the interviews.

Liberation, physical achievement and empowerment

The two major findings of the study were somewhat at odds, with assumptions about pole dancing and its cultural links to lap dancing clubs.

Overall, the narratives were ones of joy, reporting feelings of physical achievement and empowerment. Many participants had a history of disliking physical exercise, but pole had given them a sense of success that other physical activities had failed to do.

The participants’ accounts of feeling liberated by pole classes are also key to understanding its popularity; many of them felt that pole classes offered them a space to resist gendered embodied expectations of them.

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