01:01, December 20 296 0 theguardian.com

2019-12-20 01:01:05
Lady Hale’s story is a lesson in self-belief. We need more like her in positions of power

Brenda Hale only went into the law because her headteacher told her she wasn’t clever enough to read history.

So it’s no surprise she felt a little overawed on coming up to Cambridge in the 1960s and finding it full of blithely confident young men behaving as if a place at the university was merely their due. It was only when she excelled in her first-year exams that the woman who would eventually become the UK’s first female law lord and subsequently president of the supreme court realised she might actually be quite good at this, after all.

The motto she later adopted on appointment to the House of Lords – Omnia feminae aequissimae, or “women are equal to everything” – seems to have served as a reminder of that early, vital lesson in not being fooled by hollow confidence. Or as she recently put it, “I encountered many young men from public school backgrounds who felt entitled to good jobs. And I realised that actually, quite a few of them were no better than me and, in some cases, not as good as me. And that made me feel: OK, I don’t feel entitled, but I’m going to try.”

This week Lady Hale marked her retirement from half a century of extremely successful trying with one final parting shot against the idea of judges ever being selected in the UK on political grounds. It was this year’s supreme court ruling that Boris Johnson had unlawfully prorogued parliament which both turned her into a household name – dangerously so, perhaps, in retrospect, given the neutrality of judges is more easily accepted when we know nothing about them – and seemingly provoked Brexiters into threatening petty revenge.

Johnson has had the last laugh for now, elected on the back of a manifesto vowing to restrict access to judicial review and make judges more accountable to parliament. But it’s the self-professed “girly swot” Hale who can look back on decades of solid achievement, transforming family life for women and children in particular.

In the 1980s she was a driving force behind the Children Act, ensuring children’s interests were enshrined as paramount in family law rather than the potentially selfish interests of the adults fighting over them. During her time at the Law Commission she championed no-fault divorce, and as a judge formed part of a groundbreaking ruling widening the definition of domestic violence beyond simple physical assault.

Hale’s career embodies the idea that diversifying positions of power brings something new to them, with a lifetime of juggling children around legal work providing insights into family dynamics that her male colleagues may have lacked. But it also shows the importance of learning to see through smokescreens. She could so easily have been cowed by the cocky young men in her university supervisions or disheartened by their adult equivalents in her career. Yet this Yorkshire daughter of two headteachers was taught to stand her ground, and the lifelong value of that lesson in confidence is not to be underestimated.

We instinctively trust people who seem to know what they’re doing, which is presumably why research from the Sutton Trust found that the most sociable, confident and assertive people were 25% more likely to land jobs paying more than £40,000 a year. But self-belief doesn’t simply fall from the sky. The same study noted that people from advantaged backgrounds were more likely to have such winning personalities; if life has always treated you well, why wouldn’t you cheerfully assume it will keep doing so? Other research confirms that the higher a person’s perceived social class, the more confident and hence more successful they’re likely to be, creating a self-perpetuating cycle down the generations.

Earlier this year Damian Hinds, the then education secretary, responded by promising to “call time” on the idea of public school confidence and teach state-educated kids to hold their own. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards incoming prime minister Johnson called time on Hinds, dropping him in a summer reshuffle, but the issue lingers unresolved. The five building blocks for confidence Hinds identified, ranging from sport to work experience, are sensible enough; but plenty of state schools already do all that and still struggle to make pupils believe in themselves. It’s still not wholly clear what role schools actually play in building this sort of golden self-belief, given children arriving at Eton will have been pre-marinated in high expectations at home and their teachers will be building on already well-established foundations. But perhaps the new intake of northern Tories can pick up where Hinds left off in solving this one, given 62% of new MPs elected last week were educated at comprehensives and another 14% at state grammars.

And in the meantime? Hale’s fellow lawyer Miriam González Durántez, who founded the charity Inspiring Girls to boost female confidence, used to advise young women lacking it that “if you don’t have it, you fake it”. She was right about what anyone from a background not automatically conferring self-belief needs to know, which is that confident people often aren’t as good as they seem to think they are. But that’s only half the story. It wasn’t faking it that changed things for a young Brenda Hale so much as having the opportunity in end-of-year exams to show objectively what she could do. The other half of the story is teaching employers to see through those whose unstoppable self-belief masks nothing much, and look twice at those who don’t outwardly brim with confidence, particularly early in their careers. So many who came up the Hale way did so after being given a break by someone, when still raw and nervous and surrounded by people seemingly untroubled by doubt. Omnia feminae aequissimae, indeed. But they still need half a chance to show it.

Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist