Organisation Internationale de Droit du Développement

Advice from Justice Doherty to women: “Take any chance you get”

Born and raised in Portstewart, Northern Ireland, Justice Teresa Doherty spent 11 years as the only woman to hold high judicial office in the Pacific Islands. In the 2000s, she was appointed a judge of the High Court of Sierra Leone and later of the country’s Special Court, set up by the United Nations as an international war crimes tribunal.

Justice Doherty has received numerous awards for her work on human and women’s rights around the world, including a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) for outstanding contributions to the judiciary and community in the United Kingdom.

She spoke to IDLO from her home in Northern Ireland about her experiences.


IDLO: In your experience, why is the presence of women legal professionals so important for international and national justice systems?

Justice Doherty: Women will contribute to breaking down or challenging a lot of preconceived ideas that men bring to the bench and to the courts.

In Papua New Guinea, I had to overcome vague, unsubstantiated attitudes that women who suffer abuse cannot give evidence in court because they are too emotional, ashamed or don’t want to relive the trauma. That is not true. It was important to show that women want justice and are equally capable of giving evidence.

On the international scene the attitude that women do not want to give evidence of sexual abuse also was given as one explanation why sexual offences were not indicted early in some tribunals. Women judges have been the ones pushing forward the fact that rape, sexual slavery, forced marriage are an intrinsic part of war. They have really contributed to international law by standing up and saying in a court, women and girls are not the spoils of war.

IDLO: You have said that women shouldn’t mind being a ‘token female’, since they can achieve a lot once they get there. What did you mean by that?

JD: I don’t like this term ‘token women’. To me it carries an implication of insult, as if the woman is being appointed purely because there is a policy that demands a female appointee. It implies that the person is not being put there on their own merit, that they’re just going to be ticking the box for female representation. That’s not the way it is.

Very soon after I was appointed in Papua New Guinea, the then Chief Justice said, “now they’ve got a woman judge, I hope they’ll stop harping on at me about appointing a woman”. But if you’re a token, you’re not just sitting there as a decoration. You’re introducing a work ethic, new attitudes. Once you get into that position, you can start making changes, speaking up. You can prove – as I’ve had to do – that women can do the job.

IDLO: What are the most common factors that hold women back from attaining high-level positions in the justice sector?

JD: I think women have a sense of duty towards family, which can mean they drop out for a short time, and that has a negative impact on their being seen to have continuous experience. Sometimes male employers claim, wrongly, that women on the bench or at the bar are too emotional or inconsistent. And sometimes women are just not pushy enough; they’re too polite. Men will be much more assertive, to the point of almost being aggressive in pushing themselves forward. I suppose women are brought up to be good-mannered, and that does not always help.

IDLO: What advice would you give to young women seeking a career in law and justice?

JD: Take any chance you get to do something in a court case or for others – even if it’s difficult, even if it seems odd. Take the chances when you get them, because later on people will notice what you did.

If you’re going to get married, marry someone that will agree to you doing your work and will encourage you. I say this having worked with women whose husbands interfered or prevented them in their careers. That’s a choice that you cannot predict easily.

Really prepare before you take on any work. They will watch women to see if they make a mistake more than they will watch a man. I got the reputation in Papua New Guinea of having sorcery powers simply because as a judge, I would have noted a case and read the files in advance.

Accept the fact that some men will try and put you down. I’ve had men make a lot of cryptic, snide, nasty remarks to me. Often, they don’t even realize they’re putting you down. You have to learn to ignore it.

If you make a mistake – there’s an old Irish saying that the person who never made a mistake, never made anything! – don’t cover it up, just admit it, sort it out, move on.

Maybe one other practical piece of advice: if you’re in a court case where something happened in a particular place, go and see it. I learned that from an old colleague many, many years ago. If you’re cross-examining a witness, or if you’re commenting as a judge, you can say things like, “ah yes, but isn’t there a shop on the corner?”. It gives you quite a psychological advantage.

Finally, do not work seven days a week. I learned the hard way that working all the time is too much for the human brain and body. I see the pressure young lawyers are under to bill hours; it’s not good for them. That’s where mistakes happen. You feel great the next morning after a day off.


Justice Doherty spoke to IDLO after participating in an event organized by IDLO and the GQUAL Campaign in The Hague on women justice professionals and gender equality.

IDLO is committed through its Gender Pledge to support women’s professional participation in the justice sector. Gender is a cross-cutting theme of IDLO’s programs and advocacy work, including through its role as a founding partner of the GQUAL Campaign and host of the recent inaugural meeting of the High-level Group on Justice for Women. Inspired by Sustainable Development Goals 5 and 16 of the 2030 Agenda, IDLO is working to promote women as #ChampionsOfJustice.