Give diversity a voice
More women should be taking centre stage at flagship events, argues Dana Denis-Smith
Having good female role models at the top of the legal profession is a powerful tool in promoting diversity. Women starting out in their careers want to see people like them rising to senior positions and take inspiration from seeing what other female lawyers have achieved. In recent years we have seen more efforts made to give women lawyers a public platform, with increasing numbers being asked to sit on panel discussions, give after-dinner speeches and get involved in conferences. While some progress is being made, I am still disappointed to see how few women lawyers are asked to be keynote speakers at flagship events or given headline slots at prestigious lectures.
This year I was struck by the fact that for this year’s Inns of Court main annual lectures, only one of the speakers was a woman. Widening the pool of women headlining prestigious events in the industry is critical for the next stage as more of them enter into the public realm. It is hard to believe that there aren’t enough women with the necessary expertise. There are countless women barristers and solicitors who could no doubt hold an audience on their chosen subject, but their voices are not being heard. In this centenary year of women in law in particular, women should be taking centre stage, demonstrating their intellectual strength and gaining the recognition and status that goes with that. Female lawyers need to be seen as equals to men, with the same public platform. Speakers for these bigticket events continue to be drawn from a very narrow field. There is the sense that if a woman is chosen to speak one year, the organisers are somehow off the hook for a few years having ticked the diversity box. Not only does this impact on the diversity of voices in the profession, it also means there is less diversity of thought and ideas. The women that get a chance to lecture are often the same – Baroness Hale and Baroness Helena Kennedy being leading women pioneers and voices.
It’s very likely that they themselves would like to see a newer generation following in their footsteps and addressing some of the incredible challenges faced by the justice system today in front of their peers. Many women I speak to are called upon to discuss issues relating to women in the law but are rarely asked to share their expertise on their area of practice. They are not experts in the barriers women in the law experience but are invited to represent their gender and discuss their own journey. While there is, of course, a place for these discussions, especially as role models for the younger generation, it is time that women are invited to speak more – and at higher profile events – on their specialist areas too. Such opportunities boost the careers of those involved and build their standing among their peers.
The experience of holding a room is invaluable and will no doubt lead to further speaking engagements. Those organising these events need to be more imaginative and must go looking for alternative voices rather than taking the easy option of the tried and tested speakers who no doubt many of the audience will have heard before. Men should consider turning down speaker slots at conferences that are dominated by men and refuse to sit on all male panels. Women are out there, they just need to be found and then given the opportunity. Let’s ensure that more female lawyers are heading up flagship events, demonstrating that they are at the top of their game as leading experts, ground breakers and intellectual powerhouses.
Dana Denis-Smith is founder of The First 100 Years project first100years.org.uk