“People tend to view that things are like they are and there’s nothing we can do about them – and I profoundly disagree. I think that in transforming ourselves, our society, our planet, we have the power to change things. We do ourselves and our world a great disservice by not taking that on.” With the centenary of women’s suffrage on the horizon, it is a great time to remember the brave women who fought for equality and changed society forever. However, the quote above did not come from Emmeline Pankhurst or Millicent Fawcett – it came from Jo Shaw, one of three barristers representing the Women’s Equality Party in the upcoming London Assembly election. The Women’s Equality Party aims to address the ongoing issues of unequal representation that still persist in the legal profession and society more broadly. Also campaigning are Harini Iyengar and Isabelle Parasram, fuelled by the belief that equality does not exist in practice despite having been written into legislation, once again, in the Equality Act 2010. Of course, this is not to deride the achievements of the Suffragettes or second and third-wave feminist movements, but all of these WEP representatives believe that we must continue striving until women have true equality.
Of the three barristers, Harini had the most ‘traditional’ academic route into the profession, via Manchester High School for Girls (which boasts alumni such as Christabel, Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst, Carrie Morrison and Edith Hesling) and Brasenose College, Oxford. Having been encouraged to go for “serious professions” at school and supported fully in her aspirations, she found Brasenose somewhat different: “In those days… it wasn’t very nice for women. It was a certain kind of social group that I found it very hard to fit in. We weren’t appreciated.”
While Harini has since reconnected with the college, and now appears in a ‘40 years of Brasenose women‘ exhibition, her early experiences at the Bar were isolating, despite feeling as though she was respected more: “I had a baby during my pupillage, which wasn’t really the done thing… there was nobody that I knew in the same situation at all.” Like many working mothers, Harini avoided mentioning in professional circles the fact that she had children.
Since then, attitudes towards working mothers have improved, but her awareness of discrimination and her passion for justice has not dimmed, which is reflected in her work: “As an employment lawyer, I think it’s been very difficult for women to litigate to get equal treatment, especially now there’s been an 80% fall in discrimination claims in the last couple of years, since they introduced employment tribunal fees.” This change in government policy is just one of the ways that equality has been put under even more jeopardy in recent years, along with a whole raft of cuts that disproportionately affect women and minorities.
Also an employment specialist, Isabelle shares the same passion for justice and equality in the workplace. Her early education, however, was rather international, moving from the UK, where she was born, to her parents’ homeland, Trinidad, at the age of 10, before returning to the UK at 15 and going on to study law at Kings College London. Her career, too, has been a lot more varied: “I did my pupillage, then went on to work in-house mainly – but at various points I worked in the public, private and charitable sectors, covering a broad range of law. It was only after having my 4th child that I decided to start my own Chambers, in 2012.” Far from preventing her from specialising, Isabelle’s career and variety of experience has enabled a multi-faceted approach: “I now practice across numerous areas of law, although my favourite area is employment law/HR because of my experience of managing staff teams for the organisations I’ve worked with.”
Her role as head of Greycoat Law is somewhat different still; a dual-capacity barrister acting as Head of Chambers of her own legal practice with a flexible, largely virtual team. Isabelle’s Chambers is pioneering a new approach to legal services – it can run cases from start to finish or provides cover for sole practitioner barristers as the equivalent of an Instructing Solicitor. Knowing she wanted a large family, Isabelle had to chisel out a niche that worked for her, allowing her, and her team of staff, the balance she wanted.
“The solution I’ve found has been to start out on my own and to offer a direct access service that is fully supported by a competent administrative team, because the traditional Chambers setup isn’t particularly family-friendly. If I’d have stayed within the legal field as it stands, it would have been a choice between my career and my family – now I can enjoy both.” Isabelle had to approach her career with a plan that, in some ways, was much more risky. While her business sense combined with expert legal knowledge ensured that it paid off, she was forced to use her creativity to carve opportunities out rather than take the well-trodden path. Through her working practices and by joining the Women’s Equality Party, she hopes to create an environment where the support for women and men who want work-life balance is already in existence.
Jo Shaw took a completely different approach, studying English at the University of Leeds. Not sure what she wanted to do, she explored her options and then completed her CPE at Westminster before deciding law was right for her and getting called to the Bar in 2000. She was not immediately aware of any gender disparity or sexism though. Despite calling herself a feminist “since I knew that the word meant”, she admits that along with a lot of women her age, “I thought if I work hard and do the right things, in the sense of how to progress my career, then it will happen.” She also didn’t feel that she encountered sexism as a professional until becoming involved in politics: “Having seen the structural barriers in politics I then saw it in the law, and what I saw was that women of my generation were not progressing at the same rate as some of the men around or slightly above us.”
There remains a distinct disparity in the profession, from women’s representation in leadership roles to the continued existence of the gender pay gap, and for Jo Shaw it’s a “fantastic waste of talent, opportunity and potential for those individuals and for society more generally.” The worst thing though, as a lawyer and therefore someone who prides themselves on rational thought, is “if you believe in fairness and justice, as I passionately do, then to encounter inequality, which is entirely irrational and based on nothing more than prejudice, is really shocking.”
There remains a worryingly dominant portion of society that denies inequality, denies that the gender pay gap is problematic, recruits and promotes with no regard for unconscious and creates barriers to justice in sexual harassment cases. There remains a worryingly large group of both men and women that brand feminists as ‘man-haters’ and complain that a word that starts with ‘fem’ could never be for equality – conveniently forgetting that we call ourselves ‘mankind’. There is a large portion of society that simply refuses to recognise evidence and has no will for change. We have come a long way since women were enfranchised and began to practice as lawyers, but we still have an awfully long way to go before we can celebrate true equality and parity. The first step is for everyone, most importantly those in leadership positions, to acknowledge the existence of a problem before they can wholly commit to finding efficient, long-lasting solutions. For Harini, Jo and Isabelle, representative of a diversity of women barristers, the problem is very clear and visible. By standing for election as candidates for the Women’s Equality Party, they are owning the power to transform. This series of blog posts will tell their stories.
Part 2 to follow.