In Conversation With First 100 Years Project Founder, Dana Denis-Smith On What She Envisions For The Project (2015 Spark21 Conference)

Published 17th October 2016
As we look forward to the Annual Spark 21 Conference on 9 November 2016 at Simmons & Simmons LLP, the First 100 Years Project will be publishing excerpts of speeches from the 2015 Spark21 Conference every Monday, leading up to this year’s conference. Please visit the website for more information on how to attend.

In Conversation With First 100 Years Project Founder, Dana

What inspired you to create this project?

I was born in Romania and the Communism by all measures was suffering from workplace equality enforced by the state, so I grew up in a system that had equality in the workplace. And I was quite shocked when I arrived [to a law firm in the UK]. I was really astounded by the problem that woman seemed to have to advance and I was staggered by how many of my friends who were woman just never continued; they were dropping out.

So when I came across the photograph [of Dorothy Livingston as the only female partner in her law firm], which was actually in the magazine of my husband’s ex-law firm, it literally obsessed me. I was born in 1982, growing up in Communist Romania at the time and at first when I saw that there hadn’t been more than one woman, I was just amazed that women had been held back. I had come here with this kind of promise of the better world outside communism and yet women had been held back to some extent, more than where I’d come from. So it really was just a view from outside I think that got me going and the photograph just crystalized it all.

So what are you hoping to achieve with this project?

I think it’s a very important thing to record the contribution of woman in the profession to create that continuity. It’s really important to have a coherent narrative that sets out the achievements that went before us. I think that was one of the things that we miss, I miss. I didn’t stay in law. I ended up running my own business and leaving quite with ease. Now I had made a decision to change course from a job I loved as a journalist to become a lawyer, only then to drop out relatively easily because I just didn’t see the point of queuing for another ten years to get to the top… to maybe get to the top.

What is the long term aim then? Where do you really hope to get in the long term [with the project]?

So the project runs for another four years. It runs to the 100th anniversary of women being allowed to be in law. For that anniversary year we have a lot of things planned, including recording 100 films like the one you’ve seen. Dame Linda Dobbs and Shami Chakrabarti have been filmed as part of the project, so we want to produce 100 films of role models that people can play in their own time, whether their university have famous people or not, because that’s the other thing. If you haven’t been to a famous university you won’t have anybody famous to come to visit, which means you don’t have a role model. So in the digital age, this is a digital archive for anybody to access. We want to get as many stories of people that we should know about but we have never heard of. We recently had a story from the family of the first woman lawyer in the Foreign Office. It was sent by her family when they came across the project. It’s an incredible story and those are the stories we’re looking for.

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