Shami Chakrabarti on Experiencing Sexism and the Importance of Female Role Models

Published 22nd August 2016

These are excerpts from the First 100 Year’s video interview with Shami Chakrabarti which can be found here.

I think I wanted to become a lawyer fairly early on. I think I was partly shaped by the books and movies that my Mother shared with me, that’s ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’, ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, [and] the list goes on. The idea of justice in the courtroom. I was also partly shaped by the idea that law could be a vehicle for broader social change.

I think we all suffer injustices as children. We’re all subject to what we feel is unfair treatment and punishment without trial and collective punishment ….. but I think also, if you are a girl, you very early on see that girls and boys are treated differently and not always fairly and equally ….. [if] you come from a minority background you can sometimes see racial prejudice and sometimes very graphically see the demonstration of that. I grew up in the 1970’s, I saw racist graphite all over the walls, I sat on cheap trains with my parents and watched them nervously endure racist football chants and so on. I wouldn’t say that I’ve had an unfortunate life, I think I’ve had an extremely fortunate one, but yes I’ve live through the existence of injustice on grounds of gender in particular all my life.

I didn’t find pupillage the happiest of experiences. I did see young men being preferred over young women pupils at the bar. I saw young women who were clearly the most able of my peers getting fewer opportunities for pupillages and for tenancies in Chambers than my male counterpart. There’s no doubt about that. I hope it’s a little better than that now but if you look further up the food chain, it is a terrible scandal that Britain has only ever had one woman Law Lord as our Supreme Court Justice. The wonderful Baroness Brenda Hale remains the first and only woman ever to have served in our highest court [and] that is completely unconscionable. There is no justification or excuse and I hugely disagree with people who suggest that it will take up to 50 years to right that wrong.

I can remember quite overt sexism at times when I was a young barrister and I can remember quite overt sexism when I was a lawyer in the Home Office. I can remember being acknowledged by a barrister for looking too confident as I walked into the clerk’s room to discuss a brief. You know, looking as if I owned the place, how dare I, how dare I have that kind of confidence and I was sure that that was because I was a woman. I can remember a senior colleague in the Home Office asking me what the personal circumstances of a junior colleague were before we negotiated what her pay should be. The underlying question being does she have a husband to support her or should she be paid the same as her male counterparts. This was not so long ago; this is all in the mid and late 1990’s.

The broad span of my time in the Home Office is the most formative time in my career and a very happy one. One of the things about the Civil Service at that time and the Government legal service in particular, as it was led by the first woman Treasury Solicitor, Dame Juliette Weldon, was a much more equal place I suspect than private practice at that time. Whether that’s still the position now I don’t know, but public service has often been a place where women have gone instinctively because it’s often been friendlier to families and better for women.

There is no doubt that there are certain jibes that you get as a woman that you wouldn’t get as a man. There are certain columnists that seem to have a particular problem not just perhaps with my values and my arguments, but with the fact that, you know, I’m a bolshie woman. All these phrases that are more applicable to women than perhaps to men. And I was once on Question Time with Jeff Hulme, we had a debate about torture because his Government was complicit in torture and he called my response emotional and this divided the audience I think, on very clear gender lines because I think a lot of the women realised that this was misogynistic.

I think parenthood can affect people in a number of different ways cause we’re individuals, but for me ironically perhaps, I got a greater confidence through having had a child. I think I was so anxious about the awesome responsibility of being a parent, of being a Mother that even a massive job like being the Director of Liberty felt less of a responsibility than parenthood, so I think it was good for my confidence, but it also gave me a more personal and less abstract or philosophical stake in the constitutional climate. You know, we want to leave a better planet to future generations, but not just a physical environment but a political and constitutional environment where their rights and freedoms will be respected.

I think role models are important. They’re not always the most famous or successful people but I do think it’s important that we all have people that we can identify with and if they can do things we want to do and they look a bit like us, we are encouraged. I can remember being a 19-year-old at the LSE, a law student and hearing Alaina Kennedy, now Baroness Alaina Kennedy of the Shaws coming to speak and no doubt she spoke at length, but the phrase I remember was her encouragement that we need good people with good hearts to come into the law and that was such a simple and heartfelt phrase but I never forgot it. And then I had the privilege later in my career to meet Alaina to work with her and now she’s a dear friend; the role model becomes the friend.

When I was in the Home Office, I was so inspired and encouraged and mentored by Juliette Weldon who was the Home Office legal advisor and she went on to be the first woman Treasury Solicitor and [then] the legal advisor to the Bank of England: again a woman’s woman who wasn’t afraid to lead but also to encourage and to mentor. I can remember being so inspired by reading about Gareth Pearce ….. a solicitor who represented people who’d suffered miscarriages of justice being falsely accused of terrorism and again when I came to Liberty I had the great privilege of working with her and now my role models include younger women, including the women who work at Liberty, many from a legal background who work in policy [and] in litigation.

So the great thing about role models is they can be famous or strangers or colleagues or family members closer to home, but I think it’s wrong to ignore the importance of that kind of identification and encouragement.

[Showing us a picture of her and her mother] There was my Mother, a woman whose life chances and professional opportunities had been so limited by being a woman, by her father and by her circumstances but who was so encouraging of her daughter and she brought her daughter up, that’s me, to believe that she could do anything and. That was a special evening, one of those special evenings in your life where you think that everything and anything is possible and that’s my Mum, she’s either about to give me a kiss or she just has and there’s a younger me with no idea what the future holds. Wearing the wig and gown that I didn’t actually wear for that long compared with other people, but nonetheless, the symbols of my trade or profession and it’s a very happy day of, if you like, female solidarity and optimism and promise and that’s what I hope that this 100 Years project will be about.