Equality For Women Starts At Home

Rescheduled from March 2020 and held online, the Society of Asian Lawyers celebrated International Women’s Day during lockdown with 3 esteemed Guest Speakers:

  1. HHJ Khatun Sapnara (first person of Bangladeshi origin to join the Senior Judiciary);
  2. Mandeep Kaur Virdee (Managing Partner of Kaur Maxwell Solicitors); and 
  3. Priya Lele (Chair of “She Breaks the Law”)

In his opening remarks, SAL President, Ranjit Sond, highlighted as an Asian Association, especially now, our voice is highly-relevant as is the need to continue championing female lawyers from minority ethnic backgrounds. 

Judge Sapnara moved to the UK aged 6, experienced racism at school at a time when the National Front were prevalent.  School teachers showed a “poverty of aspiration” when Khatun expressed her ambition to become a lawyer.  

The murder of a Bangladeshi man in the UK spurred Khatun in her drive to become a lawyer and to strive further for justice for the victim, his family and community.  Simultaneously, social prejudices within the Bangladeshi community led Khatun to view marriage as a pre-requisite to attending university.  At LSE, Khatun realised that class can be a worse barrier than race.  Khatun recognised through positive feedback on assignments coupled with her socio-economic disadvantages, her university place was firmly based on merit. 

A blow to Khatun’s ambition struck when an Aunt remarked she should focus on family rather than career.  Whether as a friend or family, we all have a part to play in encouraging female ambition.

Khatun turned down a second six at Michael Mansfield’s Chambers to establish her own set in Bethnal Green providing legal advice and support to the community especially for the victims of domestic abuse.  Despite a fear of being pigeon-holed as another female specialising in Family Law, Khatun realised she had a knack for this field of law.  In 2004, Khatun became a Recorder and in 2019 was appointed a Deputy High Court Judge.  

Khatun’s top tips:

  1. It is important for men to support and champion women.  The men get a seat at the table and so can help women navigate structural dynamics.
  2. Ambition is not a dirty word.
  3. There is value in diversity.
  4. Empowerment Matters.
  5. Visible Representation Matters.

Mandeep Kaur Virdee praised The Baby Boomers for challenging discrimination which paved a brighter path for her but she felt an absence of female role models to approach for guidance.  Mandeep led by example to her younger siblings in an environment where sons and daughters are treated equally.  Equality between the sexes at home is vital.  

Mandeep’s first experience of overt discrimination was a white middle-aged male explaining that she would never make it as an insolvency lawyer because she had 3 negative features: namely being a Brown, Young Female.  It shocked Mandeep to learn that women are frequently perpetrators of discrimination.  Eventually, Mandeep realised: being different is good.

The big career change hit when the firm she worked for shut down.  Mandeep was pregnant with her first child.  Men conducting interviews vying to poach her clientbase, encouraging her to take maternity leave with poor remuneration.  Mandeep’s husband asked her: if you were not pregnant what would you do?  Fate coincided when the firm’s partner was persuaded by Mandeep’s commerciality and hardwork whilst 7 months pregnant to hand over control to Mandeep.  In 2018, Mandeep gave birth to her first child and started the firm Kaur Maxwell.  

Mandeep shared her advice:

  1. Don’t Doubt Yourself.
  2. There will always be adversity, how you react is important – turn negativity into a positive.
  3. Low confidence levels hold women back.
  4. Forget bashing your head against the wrong wall, find a wall that will yield a benefit for you.

Our final speaker, Priya Lele, descends from a line of lawyers in India but her father was dismayed when she announced her desire to become a lawyer.  He had hoped she would choose medicine, as law is not a female friendly profession.  

Priya worked in corporate finance, was not content being a big fish in a small pond and so embarked on a degree at Cambridge University with a scholarship.  She switched from feeling like the Big Fish to the Imposter Syndrome.  Difficult personal circumstances pushed her back into work which provided stability.  In the world of corporate finance, she struggled to find her voice but realised her USP was that she did not look, sound or think like every other white male in this field.  

In 2008, Priya suffered post-natal depression. Different therapies and meditation helped Priya manage anxiety.  All our broken parts make us whole.  Priya co-founded She Breaks The Law, which launched in March 2019 and has over 2000 members from 40 different countries.  

A fruitful Q&A yielded great nuggets of wisdom from our panel, including:

  • Believe in Yourself More and Your Capabilities;
  • Career Ladders are not always vertical – be flexible;
  • Know you have “an invisible army” around you (could be family, or others, non-lawyers even, who provide strength); 
  • If considering maternity, plan and be proactive in securing a successful return to work;
  • Equality starts at home.

This article was written collaboratively by Chamali Fernando (a civil and commercial litigation barrister) and Muntech Kaur (a Legal 500 Family Law Associate at Birkett Long.  Chamali and Muntech are both on the Committee at SAL, where Muntech is also Treasurer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *