How Far Have Women Come? (2015 Spark21 Conference)

Published 3rd 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.

Panel 2: Reflections on progress to date: How far have women come? How far do women have to go to achieve true equality in the profession?

*We feature excerpts from panel discussions with Dorothy Livingston, Sasha Barton, Amarjit Khera, Kate Morrison-Betts and Josephine Macintosh.

Dorothy, what was it like to be the only woman in [the picture that inspired this project]?

I think at the time, the main thing I was recovering from was the struggle to get out of the door, which was closed behind us, because the staff took a little convincing that there was a woman who was going to actually be in the picture. But it was a strange feeling and I think I appreciated that if I was in the middle, I was going to make quite a statement, and I did actually try to go backwards after a couple of pictures and was firmly told by a senior partner who I was standing next to, to stay where I was, my dear. So I did. So I am in the centre of every one of these pictures and I am very proud that it has inspired this initiative to record our progress and where we’re still falling short.

And you have brought another photograph with you today which does show there has been some progress, does it not?

Yes. This is a photograph which I will arrange to be available. It shows a retirement dinner for one of my partners who was also the senior partner of the firm, held by our department and there are five women who constitute half the senior women in the London bit of our department in this picture, and about seven men, I think. So that’s pretty good progress in the right direction, I think.

The rest of the firm does not have anywhere else which has such a concentration of women and I think we have a good way to go. Now we have targets and our target is to have 30 per cent of women in the worldwide partnership. So this includes our offices in many jurisdictions, not just London, and to have 30 per cent in senior management of the firm, which is the equivalent, I suppose, of a corporate target for the Board. One of our two joint worldwide managing partners is currently a women.

Kate, how surprising is it to someone of your age to find that so short a time ago, 1982, Dorothy was the only one in that picture? And in 1919, 99 years ago, women weren’t even allowed to practice?

I think it shows how far we’ve come in a relatively [short] period of time, but I feel that has also been used as an excuse not to progress further. Just kind of accepting the growth that has happened in the past 100 years is almost an excuse not to push harder and I find that that is an attitude among my peers that I find really frustrating because we have ratios that are almost 50:50 at undergraduate level and that is used as a reason not to push a little bit harder. And then you see the percentages just get lower and lower and lower as you move up the profession. That’s something that I’m quite passionate about changing.

I’ve actually experienced, I mean I’m only 21, but quite a hefty amount of sexism at university. It’s a lot more casual that you’d expect. We’ve had a lot of formal change, but I think casual sexism is something that’s a little bit harder to combat because the source is more uncertain. With legislation you can make changes, but I think it’s the casual stuff that I find harder to deal with.

Josephine, how much are you getting this kind of attitude?

I think it’s interesting because I didn’t feel that so much at university, but more when I was younger at school: in middle school and high school. I was relatively outspoken as I kind of felt like the jokes tended to be just really vulgar jokes. So it gets to the point that you almost try to shame the person who’s speaking that way, through the way that you react to their joke. So whether it is speaking up and saying “This is wrong,” or just not laughing. That will break down a bit of the peer pressure environment that is around these jokes. I don’t believe that a lot of the boys or men who engage in that have always thought about what they’re saying, and also not all of them probably even find that extremely funny, but took part as sort of a laddish behaviour. I think that can be quite combated if people just don’t engage and don’t give into peer pressure.

I think you hear [the word ‘banter’] a lot and you can then use it to excuse anything. I’ve had friends who would make anti-semitic jokes or racist jokes. How are we okay with telling them that that’s not alright while we have to take sexist jokes? I really don’t see where the line is.

How have you dealt with things like this, Sasha? You must have come across it in the past as well?

I deal with a lot of failures to protect the vulnerable victims of rape and sexual assault and you’re in the court room and often you’ll have for example, a male barrister just making some joke which goes to the heart of what has happened. Sort of [ha ha ha] and the judge is laughing along and you’re sitting there as a solicitor and there’s obviously nothing you can say. You’ve got your client with you and you’re just thinking “how is that okay?” And where do you even begin with challenging that kind of thing?

I haven’t had a judge saying these stuff, but I have had the judge laughing along in an ‘old boys’ kind of way. Often a row of Police Officers sitting behind would all chuckle to themselves. And you are in that situation where you just sort of observe and you just think “What?” I think it’s different in a personal setting and I think it’s an interesting line to find. You don’t want to come across as being humanist, but equally it’s finding that right line of saying, “That’s not okay,” whilst not sort of acting up.

Amarjit, how would you have handled it in a magistrate’s court if the sort of thing that Sasha has been describing, had been going on. Let’s say with the Police laughing or a lawyer making those kind of jokes?

It was a very underprivileged area where I was a magistrate, Feltham. And the Police and my colleagues, we all were representative of that population. So there are so many things I don’t even remember, but then it was very, very difficult. Even the Clerk would shake his head. He would not know what to say when the Police Officers made jokes about different things, “Oh, these people are always like that.” They were mainly racist jokes. Not female jokes, but racist jokes, and half of them I didn’t even understand because I was not used to that sort of language.

The Clerk would just go quiet because I was there. He was very, very sensitive. He was an elderly man incidentally, in his sixties, nearly retiring, and he was the only one in fact who befriended me. That’s why he was very protective and he would handle it mainly because I would be shocked as I didn’t know what to do. But now it’s a different matter. In those days I literally did not know how to react or what to say or how to get on with this.

[There was a case about] an Asian woman in a sari [who] was walking in a park and teenage boys were throwing stones at her, lighting the match and throwing at her. She was obviously very scared and she pursued and the Police was called. The Police who were giving evidence said “Oh, these boys were just larking about.” My senior colleague also said “Yeah, they were young children. They were just larking about. Nothing serious about it.” “How could it not be serious,” I said. That was the first time I said, “How can you say this? If I was in that position, I’ll be terrified. I probably will have a heart attack.” And then the whole scenario was changed. It’s not that because I was thinking rationally. I was thinking more emotionally, that if I was in that position, what will happen to me? And when I spoke like that, I think they took notice of it. So this was a more emotional reaction that helps rather than rational arguments.

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