My daft learned friend: shut up!

Martin Mears, head of the Law Society, has dubbed women `the enemy'. Eileen Pembridge replies
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The Independent Online
It is becoming increasingly difficult to read newspaper reports of the public utterances of Martin Mears, president of the Law Society, because it is increasingly obvious that they are given such prominence only because he is the elected leader of our profession and therefore shows us all up in a poor light. It is the latest, subtle twist to lawyer- bashing.

When I was asked to write a riposte to his "arguments" on women and the law in his speech to women lawyers at a conference on Saturday, I hesitated on the basis that, in framing a rebuttal, I was dignifying those motley pontifications with a label they did not merit. I cannot imagine for a moment that any paper would give even one column-inch to his views on the "zealotry" of women if he did not hold his current position.

It is his prominence which earns him the coverage - at our expense - and I am fed up with the sight of chortling journalists barely able to contain their glee at having such copy to play with at otherwise serious and worthy gatherings. It is not, after all, the tenets of the Flat Earth Society that call for coverage - it the discovery that the editor of the National Geographic is a card-carrying member of it.

Thus it is with us. Pity the poor solicitor - underpaid and undervalued as a conveyancer, ground down and abused for long unpaid hours on legal aid work - and now a clown for a leader, one who holds out forcefully that there is no discrimination against women, no prejudice, no glass ceiling, no sexual harassment, no problem - save our own Machiavellian perceptions.

Over the past year or so several surveys have highlighted women's frustration, fear, or ire, at being held back, channelled into traditionally female fields of work, denied partnerships, at being sexually harassed or demeaned, at facing the old choice of being a "lad" (down the pub or up the club) or opting out. Women with children usually come off worst.

Mears denies any of this. He points to the fact that today half of those solicitors under 30 are women and revels at dismissing the figures showing them going so far and no further. He says that women should be at home tending their families, not "elbowing their way to the top", and he plays on male fears of maternity leave and unjust accusations of sexual harassment. He moves on to lambast what he calls the whole discrimination industry. The logic is flawed but the rhetoric gets him the headlines. The dilemma then is whether to ignore him or take him on.

Never mind that it is our profession's fault that he got to be our leader - it seems that many were so keen for a change at election time that they forgot to look at what change was going to produce.

Martin Mears loves every minute of it. What better way to spend a Saturday morning if you do not like women (as peers and colleagues, you understand) than to be given a platform to taunt them, wind them up, insult them (knowing the press will lap it up), to shame us in front of the Bar, bounce around being unrepentant and revel in the enfant terrible role while annoying so many women lawyers at one go.

One is inevitably left wondering at the personality that holds these views in the face of the evidence. One ponders how such highly personal attitudes towards women (which I see mirrored in his dealings with the Society) could come to be elevated to a credo or reported as news.

On Saturday, he dubbed all 400 of us "the enemy". The women attending were generally philosophical - we are accustomed, after all, to making allowances for the male menopause, the fragile egos, the embittered, the patronising and the arrogant. Most shrugged and simply said "weird", and perhaps were glad to be reminded why they felt the need to be at the conference in the first place.

I have no hope that Martin Mears will ever change. This time it fell to another man, the leader of the Bar, to shrug off Mears's constant taunts of "political correctness" and tell him he was wrong. I hope that come the next election time, Mears will reap the whirlwind of his daft and offensive views on women and that the bulk of our profession will tell him that the joke's over.

The writer is a council member of the Law Society and stood against Martin Mears for the presidency of the Law Society in 1995.