Why we need more female role models in the law world, by a female law student
Bethany Baggaley is a 19-year-old second year law student from Cornwall currently at the University of Bristol with aspirations to pursue a career at the Bar. Here she shares her thoughts on barriers, role models and diversity in the world of law.
What are your main challenges on a professional level? How do you plan to overcome these?
I aim to go to the Bar, and my primary concern is the lack of females in high ranking areas. I appreciate that initiatives to increase diversity have yet to trickle through to the top echelons of the Bar. But I don’t think that this excuse justifies the lack of upward promotion for females.
We are told, every time the question is raised, that women are not going for promotion because they want to start families, and for a variety of reasons, including the self-employed nature of the Bar meaning it is difficult to maintain client relationships, and they end up leaving the profession.
This is not good enough. I’m concerned that despite my current determination, I will not be able to take my career as far as I want due to my personal life. Hopefully by the time I enter the profession, these obstacles will be lessened. The only thing I can do is to be determined and take advantage of initiatives that are available for me.
What are your biggest concerns about having a legal career?
Largely, the uncertainty associated with the self-employed nature of the Bar. Though I am aware of the competitive nature of the legal profession, I think that everywhere is competitive, and I would rather spend my time trying to achieve something I am passionate about than pursuing a comparatively easier career path that I have no or little interest in.
What excites you the most about the legal profession?
Everything – from the idea of being a professional and being an expert at something to working in a profession so steeped in history. I’m really excited to go into work every day with the knowledge that I will be able to make a difference to someone, however minute. I’m also enthused and determined to make positive changes to the profession to make access easier and to help remove some of the law’s patriarchal nature.
Do you feel the legal profession is inclusive?
No. I recently attended a diversity panel event in which a woman recounted a story where she was told her name was “too ethnic”, she was also told to wear dresses and decided as a result of that experience to relax her natural hair.
What shocked me about this was not that it happens, experiences like this are probably far more usual than anyone would ever admit, but that she didn’t see this as discrimination when directly asked – this experience came out later.
As a mixed-race female, I am proud of myself as I am, but that does not mean the profession will just accept me. Personally, I would never change myself for anyone else, especially a job, however I think her account represented the general (and largely accepted) pressures put on us to conform.
What barriers are there in the legal profession?
I think that the Bar is socio-economically discriminative. The whole set up of the profession is very much about who you know, and while that could be said of any profession, I think that this need is enhanced at the Bar. Those of us with no connections are automatically on a back foot.
Furthermore, the whole set up of gaining pupillage is disabling to an entire class of people. To study the BPTC in London with one provider is currently £19,070, with the budget price of £15,680 if you’re prepared to go outside of London. Yes, there are scholarships available, however this will still be off-putting to a swathe of people.
The Bar is not a well paying profession. If you get into a top chamber then it is possible to earn well, indeed the more you work, the more you earn, but this is not going to be realistic for most pupils, especially those working in poorer areas of the Bar.
What support do you feel younger women need from their schools/universities to tackle stereotypes around gender?
From the age of 11 to 17, I attended an all girls school in Plymouth. It felt like every year the syllabus was focused on feminism, from the Caroline Norton and the Pankhursts to the effects of World War 2 on increasing the social mobility of women.
Despite this subject focus, personally, I feel there was insufficient discussion as to the effects of sexism in the real world, especially in the lower school. Inclusivity was somewhat a side issue, which I think to an extent was a positive as we never saw ourselves as disadvantaged; for us there were no limits.
That being said, the lack of discussion of such issues means that they are not acknowledged. I think there needs to be greater general discussion for girls and boys of gender issues in schools at all levels, on an informal level their needs to be greater discussion and acknowledgement that gender is an issue which needs discussion.
Who is your role model and why?
In terms of a professional role model, I couldn’t name one – I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life until about 2 years ago. I never had a person to aim for, I didn’t know about anyone to aspire to. Everyone has their own story and obstacles, and therefore I think there’s something to learn from everybody’s experiences. Rather than have a role model, I try to motivate myself by being the best I can.
Are you concerned about our political landscape post-Brexit and Trump and how they will affect the advancement of women?
The divisive nature of Brexit does pose dangers not just to the advancement of women, but to all those who are perceived as different. The actions and comments of Trump not only undermine the position of women, but enforce the idea of a paternalistic society where women have little autonomy. This is inherently dangerous to the advancement of women.
However, women have always faced adversity and are currently in a stronger position than ever to fight this. Trump is an issue, but thanks to modern technology, we have vocal platforms on which to fight this and that has never existed before.