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OWLSS Events: Diversity Panel

Updated: Mar 7, 2020

By Lei Yi Wong

In law firms and at the Bar, there have historically been disproportionately low levels of representation of people from minority or diverse backgrounds. Society has progressed since, but the problem still persists today. At the intersections of gender, race, and disability (amongst other characteristics), lie the struggles and strengths of diversity. On the 12th of February, a panel of women lawyers from diverse backgrounds shared their perspectives on the issue.

From left to right: Eleanor Bennett (OWLSS President), Sally Penni, Sarah Lee, Rashida Abdulai, Dr Miranda Brawn, and Zoe Johnson QC

The Biggest Hurdles of Diversity and How to Overcome Them

The challenges that people from diverse backgrounds face are numerous, and the panellists drew from personal experiences to outline a few. Ms Sally Penni, a criminal and employment law barrister from Kenworthy’s Chambers with about 20 years’ experience, shared a few of the microaggressions she had experienced for being a Black woman. As a qualified barrister in the courtroom, she would be asked for the whereabouts of her supposed pupil-master. Judges would even ask Ms Penni to be an ‘interpreter’ for Black defendants. Ms Rashida Abdulai, the founder of the pan-African online legal platform, Strand Sahara, and formerly an international arbitration solicitor at Hogan Lovells, recalled feeling a lack of belonging at her workplace as she did not look like her colleagues. This led the panellists to consider that some of the struggles of coming from a diverse background are in part self-inflicted, as Ms Sarah Lee noted. Ms Lee is the head of Dispute Resolution at Slaughter & May. She recounted with some regret not even contemplating studying at the University of Oxford. A more overt and sinister form of marginalisation is how women lawyers tend to be pigeonholed into taking on certain cases. Ms Zoey Johnson QC of QEB Hollis Whiteman highlighted how, for example, women barristers are often pushed to take on sex crimes. Ms Johnson QC is a founding member of the Bar Disability Panel and was the second woman ever to be part of the Senior Treasury Counsel upon her appointment in 2011.

The panellists also let the audience in on some ways to overcome these hurdles. Dr Miranda Brawn recommended the use of support networks. Dr Brawn is a qualified barrister, an investment banker, the founder of The Miranda Brawn Diversity Leadership Foundation, and manages legal risk at Daiwa Capital Markets. Dr Brawn raised the issue of knowing when to use one’s voice. She recalled an incident as a young banker when a superior used expletives when speaking to her, following which she demanded for him to speak to her with the same level of respect that she had accorded him. However, it is also clear to see why minority background professionals sometimes do not stand up for themselves when disrespected. Ms Penni highlighted that it might not be easy to call out disrespect at the beginning of one’s career for fear of backlash. She shared that as a young barrister, she had instead opted to use humour to deflect prejudice, by drawing out the irrationality of certain discriminatory statements made to her. Finally, Ms Abdulai reminded the audience of the benefits of standing out from the crowd. Being in a prime position to be seen also increases the chances for opportunities to progress. For example, Ms Abdulai’s father was from Sierra Leone. She tapped into her heritage and focused her practice on Africa, becoming the expert in her firm on African affairs.

Diversity in Real Life

One interesting issue raised was how diversity was reflected in the makeup of firms and at the Bar. It is often the case that firms have a diverse intake nowadays. However, it is the retention of these diverse individuals that is the real challenge, as Ms Lee pointed out. She further highlighted that firms usually hire university degree-holders, which already skews the statistics disproportionately against those of minority backgrounds. Moreover, as Ms Abdulai rightly indicated, initial diversity often fails to be translated into the more senior positions in the office. The lack of representation is further exacerbated as a result of inflexible work schedules. For example, insufficient maternity leave policies disproportionately affect people experiencing or expecting pregnancy. It was thus heartening to hear from Ms Abdulai that Hogan Lovells was re-assessing its welfare policies and considering more flexible hours or even the option to work from home. Ms Lee also mentioned that at Slaughter & May shared parental leave was an option. Clearly, this is a policy that solves the problem at its root, for it allows both parents to share the responsibility of childcare equitably. This mitigates the problem of mothers being stuck in the quagmire of insufficient maternity leave, fewer career opportunities, and having to single-handedly care for a child.

Ms Johnson QC raised a few of the disability-specific issues that lawyers with disabilities face. After the funding for the criminal Bar was cut, she experienced an incident involving a poorly maintained courthouse: the ceiling collapsed on counsel. Ms Johnson QC drew our attention to the fact that such an experience could be life-threatening for people with disabilities.

It is clear that blanket policies often have disproportionate impacts on minority or diverse groups. However, the panellists reminded us that we could all make a difference. For example, Ms Penni noted that everyone in the audience had privilege by virtue of studying at the University of Oxford. The point she made was that we could use this privilege to endorse or propose more equitable policies, and to demand better treatment. Ms Lee exemplified this when her first order of business, upon being elected to the Partnership Board of her firm, was to change the Board’s constitution to increase accessibility for female partners.

Do People of Diversity Have Additional Responsibilities?

An audience member asked if the panellists felt that people of diverse backgrounds had to take on additional responsibilities beyond their usual workloads to promote diversity. Ms Lee stated firmly that any additional work done had to be accorded recognition by the firm. She emphasised that lawyers of diversity should not allow their goodwill with regards to the cause to be exploited by firms, free of charge. She compared diversity initiatives to pro bono work and said that it would be fair for firms to value and professionally recognise such initiatives on the same level as pro bono work, which is often billable.

Finally, Dr Brawn raised the oft-forgotten point that diversity needs allies as well. It is equally as important to raise awareness of diversity amongst people from more traditionally represented backgrounds, and to encourage them to advocate for the issue. It would be of little use preaching to the choir if key decision-makers from traditional backgrounds were to be oblivious, indifferent, or hostile to the issue. The panel concluded that everyone has a role to play when it comes to diversity. Ultimately, the key to this issue lies in moving together in order to move forward.


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