International Women’s Day: Choose To Challenge

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day (8 March) is #ChooseToChallenge. 

There are many ways we can challenge decisions and behaviours to help create more inclusive and diverse environments, which encourage equality instead of inhibiting it. 

When we are presented with an opportunity to stand up to bias, discrimination, or exclusion, we should take it.

It is as much everyone’s responsibility to contribute to diversity and inclusion as it is for those that live it as a reality.

More diverse environments and perspectives and more inclusive behaviours and actions should not rely solely on the shoulders of those who would suffer the most without them.

To align with this theme, we have asked members of the profession to share when they have chosen to challenge.

Our words have weight

Evelyn Ofori-KoreeAs many of you are aware, gender bias involves treating someone unfavourably because of their sex.

It's predominantly thought of as an issue that affects women but of course can impact men and members of the transgender communities.

I recall reaching out to a role model and female head of chambers when I wanted to embark on a career in law and qualify as a barrister.

Not only had I completed university top of my class, but I had also secured academic scholarship from my inn to undertake my bar vocational course.

As I narrated details of my academic journey to the head of chambers, she questioned whether I was sure that I had actually secured a scholarship and not a loan and also if I could ‘cope’ with the pressures of becoming a barrister.

I felt incredibly disheartened and began to have second thoughts about my career choice.

I often reflected on this and regretted not pushing back or expressing disappointment at the lack of encouragement from such a role model.

Challenged, respectfully

Many years later as a practitioner I had a case listed in a court, with the same head of chambers.

She sat in my hearing and later gave me positive feedback on my advocacy after the judge had risen for a short break.

I took advantage of this to respectfully remind her of our conversation and thank her that her words had only spurred me on to achieve and exceed my goals.

Only then did she realise what she had done and was emphatically apologetic.

We need to remember to lift others up as we climb, and to be more conscious that our words and actions make the difference positively or negatively.

Evelyn Ofori Koree is a solicitor-advocate, chair of our Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division Committee, a member of the Law Society Council and the Immigration Law, Policy and Regulatory Affairs and Regulatory Processes Committees.

Support others

Christina BlacklawsThe first thing I want to say is that every woman, whether she has been aware of it or not, has faced bias and stereotyping on pretty much a daily basis, and I am no different.

I am sad to say that I have not always chosen to challenge.

Why? Partly because it happens so often, it’s too exhausting and depressing.

“Who’s the new blonde?”

Some days, I just can’t face the aggravation, I don’t have the time, or I’ve allowed the moment to pass.

On occasions, I haven’t had the self-confidence. For example, excited and nervous, I entered my first Law Society Council meeting to overhear two senior council members say, “who’s the new blonde?”.

My self-confidence, hope and self-esteem were crushed. I try not to be critical of these ‘failures’ to respond, and I certainly don’t criticise others for not responding; it’s not the responsibility of the victim to prevent the crime.

Choosing to challenge

However, there are times when I have challenged – for myself and more importantly, for others.

On being introduced to a group of dignitaries, they skipped over the two young black women in the party. I, politely but pointedly, asked to be introduced to their colleagues.

On a trip abroad, as president, another president made a beeline for my (more junior, white male) colleague whom he assumed to be the president rather than me. My colleague was mortified. I explained that despite being a woman, I was indeed the president.

Choosing to challenge is never the easy route, but it is satisfying and if we all do it, it will shift the dial.

My advice is look out for each other.

It's so much easier for me to challenge on your behalf than to challenge on my own behalf. Let’s build our support network – a group of all genders – to become activists for gender equity and to challenge ourselves to choose to challenge every time!

Christina Blacklaws is the former president of the Law Society of England and Wales and member of the Women Lawyers Division Committee.

Challenging social norms

Amandeep KhasriyaAs an Asian woman in the UK today, diversity and equality have always been important influences – and challenges – in my life.

This is why I have long challenged the status quo and our perceptions of what is expected from women in our society.

Social norms and gender stereotypes

Social and gender norms are the rules and expectations of how we should behave; they tell us what is appropriate for women and men to do.

For example, women are generally expected to be polite, accommodating, and nurturing, while men are expected to be strong, masculine and leaders.

Outdated social norms and stereotypes can prevent women from achieving their full potential. In fact, the United Nations High-Level Panel on Women in 2017 concluded: “changing norms should be at the top of the agenda”.

This year’s International Women's Day theme of #ChooseToChallenge is about having the courage to ‘call out’ gender stereotypes that marginalise women every day.

Throughout my 20s and 30s, I have challenged social norms expected from men and women in our society and in Asian culture.

For example, I have challenged the expectation that women should take a step back from work after they have children, and stereotypes on the division of household labour and childcare.

I have faced harmful gender norms consciously and unconsciously from friends, family, at work and at the school gates during pick-up time.

My experience of gender norms intensified after the birth of my first child.

When returning to work full-time, I was often told that being a mother to a young child was not compatible with the life of a busy lawyer, and I was often met with 'hello stranger' from the other mums when collecting my child from nursery.

Women and COVID-19

Existing gender inequalities and harmful norms have left women more vulnerable to the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The virus has significantly increased the burden of unpaid care, which is disproportionately carried out by women. As a result, research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies found that mothers in two-parent households were only doing, on average, a third of the uninterrupted paid work of fathers.

It’s important we support women in society and 'call out' harmful gender norms. Confronting and changing stereotypes is key to how women and men are able to progress in society and in the economy.

Champions of change

The legal profession is not immune to the pressures of societal norms.

As a society, we remain a long way away from achieving gender equality at home and at work. Social norms take time to change and are often difficult to influence directly.

We need to form new positive norms and the first step towards this change is to be aware of the existing social norms and to address them in a constructive manner – whether it's by speaking up or by being a role model.

All of this is possible if, on an everyday basis, we question existing attitudes and behaviours.

As champions of change, men also can work towards the positive transformation of social norms and can hold other men accountable, and encourage them to join in.

We all have a role to play, so let’s consider what change each of us can make.

Amandeep Khasriya is a senior associate at Moore Barlow specialising in major trauma claims with over 12 years of experience. She is a member of our Women Lawyers Division Committee and founder of Women Back to Law. Amandeep was named as a future leader in HERoes Women Role Model List 2020.

Do not suffer alone

Imogen HamblinI am an employment lawyer specialising in discrimination claims.

In recent years, I have supported several clients with sex and maternity related discrimination claims, which highlights to me the difference in treatment women still experience in their professional lives.

Women may have the same right to work as men, but as child bearers, we still experience injustice and extra challenges when it comes to keeping our jobs and seniority within our chosen profession.

A client’s story: returning from maternity leave

I want to talk about one of my clients who was a successful head of department, in a secondary school.

She had her first child and went on maternity leave. When she was returning to work, she made an application to work part-time.

She was told in no uncertain terms that heads of department could not work part-time and therefore if she wanted to reduce her working hours, she would have to take a demotion and associated pay cut.

My client felt that she would be unable to continue working in a team that she used to manage and felt so demoralised, that she believed she had no option but to resign.

It was only several weeks later that she came and asked me to validate her feelings that she had been treated unfairly.

I believe that her confidence had been so badly knocked that she thought the problem lay with her and not with the system that unfairly prejudiced her.

When I scratched the surface, I discovered that the male head of maths at the same school, worked part-time on a job share. There was clearly no lawful excuse for this kind of treatment.

Speak out, and question your experiences

If you feel that a situation at work has made you uncomfortable or doesn’t feel right, particularly as a result of having childcare responsibilities, then it probably isn’t.

Speak out about your experiences and question them. Talk to a trusted friend or legal advisor.

Whatever you do, do not suffer alone.

Imogen Hamblin identifies as a cis-gendered lesbian woman. She is an employment lawyer at Thrive Law and specialises in discrimination claims. Imogen has recently joined the LGBT+ Committee of the Law Society, building on her previous work to raise diversity and inclusion across the profession.

Stand up and be heard

Amy ClowreyI once sat on a panel as a judge with three other men. When we went into a back room to have a discussion about the contestants and who ought to be crowned the winner, it was apparent to me that I was being dismissed as the men spoke to one another and failed to ask for my views.

Initially I was confused, this hadn’t happened to me before. Was I imagining it? Was I being dramatic?

I decided I wasn’t and decided to stand taller, speak louder and put forward my opinions without being asked.

If I recall correctly, I think I ended up standing to gain their attention instead of sitting around the table.

It can be a frustrating situation, and on the inside you want to scream profanities. My advice is to remain dignified and calm, but be assertive. It’s a much more powerful approach.

Amy Clowrey is an associate solicitor within the Switalskis Solicitor’s child abuse department and a former chair of the Junior Lawyers Division. She has recently been co-opted back onto the committee for a one-year term. Amy is also a member of the Huddersfield Law Society Uganda Twinning Group, sits on the Yorkshire Union of Lawyers and the Council Membership Committee of the Law Society.

Always an ally

Robert BournsIt was a real privilege to be invited to engage as an ally of those leading the celebration of International Women’s Day.

Notwithstanding my age, ethnicity, and gender I have – I hope – always recognised the power of diversity in strengthening any organisation or community.

We share values, while respecting and capitalising on difference of experience and culture, promoting energy and innovation in all organisations.

My strong and resilient examples

I was fortunate to have the example of strong and resilient women in my life. 

My grandmother’s response to a crash in farm prices in the early 1900s (my grandfather was a small farmer) was to set up a café on the main A30 between Exeter and Honiton. Her determined hard work made use of surplus produce and saved the farm and family.

My mother was unable to take up her place at university because she could not afford it. She became a secretary and was quite determined that women were not looking for equality, but superiority.

Using her wit and charm, she won public recognition for the many hundreds of thousands of pounds raised for her charitable work, including accommodation and counselling for victims of domestic violence.

My wife is one of the best property lawyers I know. She, like many of her contemporaries, felt reluctant to disclose her pregnancy for fear that it would impact salary reviews, promotion, or even her employment.

Told on her third pregnancy that she might be more “sparing in the use” of maternity leave, I saw the impact of her attempting to square the circle of family and career.

I also witnessed the damage to her welfare and morale due to decisions made by her employer that would now be regarded as unacceptable.

Advocating for diversity

In my own career, I have made it clear that we would not tolerate or excuse behaviour that was discriminatory or misogynistic, even if it came from ‘the highest fliers’.

I recognised that excusing such behaviour was corrosive and quite understandably caused damaging cynicism. It was/is just plain wrong.

I have been privileged to mentor younger members of the profession, and accept the unforgettable hurt caused by casual but sustained disregard for them, their gender, or culture.

Our advocacy of the rights of others lacks credibility if we do not whole heartedly support and advocate for the celebration of diversity.

Let us celebrate every aspect of women’s achievement, today and every day.

Robert Bourns was president of the Law Society of England and Wales in 2016/17 and is currently chair of the Board. Robert is also a consultant for TLT LLP.

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