Lawyers talk tactics in the battle for equality

Should those who face the glass ceiling seek change within their own organisations, or is it more effective to work from the outside?

Gill Phillips
Gill Phillips

This was a question senior lesbian lawyers attempted to answer at a relaunch last week of legal lesbian and bisexual women’s network, the Women’s Initiative.

“If you’re a round peg, don’t try and squeeze yourself into a square hole unless that gives you something you want,” advised Gill Phillips, head of editorial legal at Guardian News & Media.

hillips used to work in the legal team at The Sun and the News of the World.

“I somewhat naively thought [my sexuality] wouldn’t matter,” she told the audience. “However, I found that I felt really uncomfortable there because they are not particularly gay-friendly papers and I would see the front page and think, ’That’s me’.

“I realise that for some people it’s a bit of a cop-out – they think you should stay inside and fight the cause, but I just knew I didn’t fit in there.”

Phillips also had a stint at The Times before joining the The Guardian in 2009.

Nicola Boulton, who used to work at Clyde & Co, the FSA and Dechert, spoke of one former head of HR who took women aside to lecture them on wearing skirts to make the men feel more at ease. In 2003 Boulton chose to found her own firm – commercial litigation boutique Byrne and Partners.

“The simple thing is that [if you want to progress] you need people to help you both at your level and above, and that’s a hell of a lot ­easier if you’re a straight white man from the right school,” she argued. “You might not get support from ’right on’ nice people, but you have to take it where you can get it.”

Employment Tribunal judge Joanna Wade ex-plained that in her role she regularly gets called “Sir” to her face.

“I think this must be because I’m very authoritative and they assume I must be a man,” she added with a touch of irony.

However, Wade has done her best to challenge ignorance from within.

“[At an earlier stage in my career] we were trained in diversity,” she said. “Every strand other than sexual orientation was covered because they said they thought it was too complicated. That was the moment when I said, ’I’m gay and I don’t think it’s too complicated’. Since then I’ve been running the training.

“One of the very proudest moments in my career has been outing myself as a reader of The Daily Telegraph. I broke through the stereotype colleagues had of me being a raging lesbian feminist bore, and they found out they couldn’t pigeonhole me.”

“I’m struck by how much being a woman is an issue in the law,” said the deputy director of public affairs at LGB charity Stonewall Ruth Hunt. “[Given this situation], I can understand that it must be very tempting to hide the fact that you are a lesbian.

“Lesbian, gay and bisexual people have to be very clever and very good in order to provide an antidote to how people might feel about our sexualities.

“A good proportion of our time is spent thinking about how our sexuality may im-pact upon people around us,” she added. “I don’t think heterosexual men spend that much time thinking about it.”