'Women belong in all places where decisions are made'Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The US Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on 18 September, was an outspoken advocate of gender equality, equality more generally and the rule of law. She was appointed by Bill Clinton in 1993, the second of only four women to have served on the US Supreme Court. The film On the Basis of Sex is a legal drama based on her early life.

Ginsburg was born in Brooklyn, New York. Her studies took her to Harvard, where the Dean asked his nine female students to justify ‘taking the place of a man’. After law school, Ginsburg struggled to find a job because of her gender but she charted her own course which ultimately led her to become a Supreme Court justice, a popular icon and advocate of equality for all.

She used her talents and energy to help women choose a career and a family, rather than one or the other, and to receive fair pay and equal opportunity. For example, in one of Ginsburg’s cases, she struck down a men-only admissions policy at the Virginia Military Institute, writing in the majority ruling that no law or policy should deny women ‘full citizenship stature – equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities’.

Ginsburg’s life shows grit and resilience are key attributes, along with talent and the ability to work hard that lawyers need. However, in my experience many of the most talented lawyers suffer from what is known as ‘impostor syndrome’.[1]Women, in particular, often experience this at higher rates than their male counterparts. It is also especially likely during periods of life transition or when a person is outside their comfort zone.

Since 2016, I have helped organise Brown Rudnick’s Women in Business speaker series, bringing together female lawyers and business professionals from across industries to discuss their careers. This year, we have heard from The Right Honourable Lady Justice Carr, a Lady Justice of Appeal and Deborah Meaden of the BBC’s Dragon’s Den TV programme. Two more speakers are planned for this year. These events have provided amongst other things a useful group mentoring opportunity.

When mentoring, what are the strategies you might adopt if your mentee is suffering from impostor syndrome? Strategies might include:

  • spotting if the mentee is being put on a ‘glass shelf ‘and is being made to feel like an imposter;
  • affirming how your mentee is feeling;
  • affirming their accomplishments to them and others – ie, be a sponsor for them; and
  • reminding them the wise know they don’t know everything.

Strategies to counteract it might also include:

  • avoiding comparing yourself to others, especially those who always seem confident that they are right;
  • surrounding yourself with a supportive team who say ‘yes you can’, ‘have a go’ or ‘we will do it together’;
  • expressing a view – sitting on the fence won’t get you far and everyone makes mistakes: the key is to learn from them and not repeat the pattern;
  • be mindful of negative self-talk;
  • accepting no one is the finished product;
  • asking for feedback and help;
  • seeking sponsorship/mentorship from partners with influence who may not look like you but are willing to take a chance on assisting you in building/improving your practice. Some of the most successful mentoring relationships you will ever have may be with someone wholly different from you;
  • don't be afraid to blaze your own trail, create opportunities for yourself and others, and strive towards your goal; and
  • accepting life is challenging (never more so than now with Covid-19) but the mentally agile and curious learn new skills and adapt quickly.

[1]The ‘impostor phenomenon’ was first described by American clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes as an ‘internal experience of intellectual phoniness’.


This article was first published in the IBA Litigation Committee newsletter in November 2020 and is reproduced by kind permission of the International Bar Association, London, UK. © International Bar Association.