Standing Up For Women in the Legal Profession.
In celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD) 2021, SAL was delighted to hear inspirational stories from Lubna Shuja, Deputy Vice President of the Law Society and Mel Nebhrajani, Director of Litigation of the Government Legal Department. Both Lubna and Mel shared their experience as Asian women in the legal world, and described the adversities they faced to get to the top of their profession. Their powerful stories highlighted the importance of resilience, and resonated with the theme for IWD 2021; Choose to Challenge.
Firstly, while gender equality statistics are going in the right direction, there is still a vast gap between sexes in the legal profession, prompting the theme “Choose to Challenge”. According to The Law Society Group Annual Statistics Report October 2020, 75,764 women held a practicing certificate (4,500 more than men), yet only 8,708 women held Partnership. This difference is also reflected in the gender pay gap which according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the UK median gender pay gap in 2019 was 17.3%, and within The Law Society this was 8.3%.
Lubna and Mel’s experience in the legal profession are first hand examples of how the gender gap not only exists, but why there is a need to challenge this. When Lubna qualified as a solicitor and climbed up to partnership 30 years ago, she found herself to be the only Asian female in her firm, and this was a familiar feeling when she was elected into The Law Society’s council in 2013. At this time, Lubna realised the council was predominantly white and male. Lubna further explained that since The Law Society’s establishment in 1825, there have only been 5 female presidents, with the first female president elected in 2002. However, with her continued commitment to challenge prejudice, Lubna will make history in October 2022 by becoming the first Asian president of The Law Society, making her the 7th female president in The Law Society’s history.
Mel’s experience was similar to Lubna in that she also found herself surrounded by a lack of diversity, especially at the Bar while completing her pupillage. There were very few women and people of colour and this lack of diversity meant racism and sexual harassment was rife. The application process itself into the Bar was filled with prejudice and discrimination. Decades later, when Mel’s Chambers did a blind application process (in which 4 women were selected, 2 of which were of colour) was it realised that the process needed be challenged. Even today Mel continues to challenge Women’s rights into the legal profession, and within the Government Legal Department, policies of achieving 25% of senior positions to be filled by people from BAME backgrounds and to have the senior board represented by women of all backgrounds are being implemented.
It is also important to recognise that this is not just a fight for women. Male counterparts need to get involved and we were pleased to see several men in the SAL audience. Male champions of women’s rights are especially important. Mel commented on how white men in the Government Legal Department acted as her sponsors enabling her to become a Director.
While it was inspiring to listen to Lubna and Mel’s wealth of experience, their main goal is to continue to challenge for diversity into the legal profession. Their experience and knowledge, together with the power of determination and equality, has taught us to be that person you cannot see. We must not be fearful of taking a leap of faith, and once we do break the moulds of society, we must help and mentor those reliving the same journey. We cannot do this alone, which moves to the last point of the talk. Challenging for diversity, whether for greater BAME or female (or both) representation or equal pay is not just an issue for those affected. We ALL need to Choose to Challenge for equality, whether male or female or from a BAME background or not. We can only move forward together as a society, and the sooner we all challenge this, the better the legal profession will be.
Satvir Sokhi is an Associate Solicitor at Kingsley Napley LLP where he works in the clinical negligence and personal injury team. Sat also serves on the Committee of Society of Asian Lawyers.