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Trending Women in Law

Carving a Path to Justice: Zeenat Islam on Race and Gender in the Legal Sector

The daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants and the first generation of her family to attend university, Zeenat Islam is challenging the hurdles facing women and minorities who want to pursue a career in Law.

Zeenat graduated at the top of her year at the University of Warwick with a first class Law degree in 2010, and continued to excel academically through her Masters and BPTC, for which she received an Outstanding. She is the Founder of the award-winning community initiative called YOU*th Inspire, and has maintained a commitment to pro-bono work and various non-profit organisations throughout her professional practice.

She says she’s “keen to dispel myths of what kind of background you’re ‘supposed’ to have” to access a legal career; making a conscious decision to defy expectations and not apply to Oxbridge in favour of finding somewhere consistent with her personality and values. She was drawn to a career at the Bar partially because of the issue of diversity and lack of representation in terms of both sex and ethnicity.

The Bar Council last year outlined the problematic encouragement of female lawyers into particular areas of Law (namely Family Law and sex-related Crime cases), yet this is something Zeenat has avoided; choosing instead to cultivate a practice in criminal defence with a background in human rights and international law. She is passionate about practising in areas which directly impact the individual and is concerned with the importance of redressing the balance between the individual and the State.

An important insight

Zeenat’s background gives her a unique insight into why people from ethnic minorities may find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system. As a criminal defence barrister she is exposed to people from all walks of life who have little understanding, insight and access to the law. She is grateful for the opportunity to represent some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in society.

“I was most definitely informed by my own story and challenges growing up. We don’t all have the same opportunities and – recognising this – wanted to do something where I could give something back.”

Zeenat has not only faced challenges in dismantling institutionalised hurdles in becoming a barrister, but is aware of cultural expectations which may prioritise family life earlier on as opposed to pursuing career aspirations first.

The youngest of five daughters, Zeenat’s parents challenged the external cultural assumption that to have sons was preferred, and concentrated on raising independent, successful and educated daughters. These daughters went on to become: a pharmacist with a PhD, a dentist, a deputy head teacher, an AVP at an investment bank, and a bright and successful lawyer. All but the youngest daughter, Zeenat, are juggling these high-powered careers with fulfilling family lives with their spouses and children. Zeenat’s parents have raised her to believe you can have, and succeed at both.

Zeenat Islam with her four sisters.

Raising the girls with values which emphasised not only family and faith, but also the importance of being truly independent gave Zeenat and her sisters the freedom to live their lives without needing to be reliant on anyone else-an important stance in a culture where men are considered the financial providers. Whilst Zeenat says there is nothing wrong with this stance, she emphasises that, for her, it’s about having the freedom to choose.

At 27 years old, Zeenat is aware that with a career at the Bar, the usual timeline isn’t necessarily realistic for everyone, and priorities vary at different times. Whilst these cultural expectations may exist in the background, Zeenat doesn’t feel pressured by them, rather letting it serve as a reminder of the path she has taken for herself: “I’m doing things differently, I’m taking a different journey and I have faith that things will work out for the best.”

Zeenat recognises that she has been immensely fortunate to have received scholarships during her academic training, without which she would have had to rethink her career path. Now she is utilising her career at the Bar as a platform to try and effect meaningful change for those that come after her, as well as her clients, the community and society in general. She says, “It’s important to utilise the skills and opportunities we have been afforded with, to contribute, fight back and stand up against things that are wrong. If being where I am means I have a stronger platform to do that, then I am going in the right direction.”

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Family & Work Trending

“Mums the Word”: 7 Reasons Why Women Stop Being Lawyers

This blog is a tribute – just not one to my mother, as you would expect on this Mother’s Day. It is a dedication from a mother to the hundreds of mother lawyers that I have come to know since I founded Obelisk Support in 2010 around a simple idea: to allow them to set the hours they work and in turn to empower them to continue their legal careers.

Law loses its female talent at the mid-level career point in huge numbers and often it is mothers that fall victim to the perception that they are inherently less committed and, in time, even less competent, as they choose to put their children first. I struggle to think of an example among my friends (I would be 7 years PQE now had I stayed to practice) who returned to find their job unchanged after having a child. Most commonly their job (if they had not been made redundant) would have been restructured to include less responsibility and less reward on their return from maternity leave.

But what are the real reasons women leave the law once they become mothers? I asked our Obelisk lawyer mums and these are the 7 reasons they identified:

1. Long commuting for work

Most of the mums that work with Obelisk have 2 or 3 children and they moved out of London. Many tried to commute into their old firms before eventually deciding to quit to focus on their families. “The long commute and really long hours in nursery were running all of us ragged and unhappy and something had to give. The main catalyst for leaving was when we moved house further out, and we didn’t think both of us commuting into London daily would really be viable.” (Emily, mum of 2).

2. Long working hours

“All-nighter” (working through the night without sleep) is a term that enters the legal vocabulary early in one’s career and sometimes it is a badge of honour to have “pulled” a few of those in a short space of time, especially in transactional departments. Spending the night in the office rather than at home with one’s children is an impossible choice for a parent to make voluntarily. The reward system in law firms, often structured around billable hours with annual minimum targets set between 1500-1800 hours, can easily run parents into the ground and more often than not pushes the mother out of the workplace. As Kate, mum of 2, puts it: “After heart breaking months of attempting to be superwoman, I quite simply decided to stop trying. As a family, we had to turn our lives upside down in order to enable me to give up work but once I did, I never looked back and I am so glad to have made the choice I did”.

3. Marriage

We have come some way from the days when women first entered the profession in the 1920s. For much of the early part of the 20th Century a woman working would reflect badly on her husband’s means to support a family, as Madeleine Heggs, probably England’s longest serving solicitor, recently said at the launch of First 100 Years (www.first100years.org.uk). Still to this day, however, marriage more often than not leads employers to think that it is only a matter of time before the woman leaves to start a family. Indeed, someone recently mentioned that a generous marriage gift from the employer was accompanied by a card suggesting she spent the cash on a cradle.

“By the age of 25 I was called to the Bar and started working as an in-house Human Rights advocate for mostly people who had fled their home country for fear of persecution. At this point something that I had always known at the back of my head but not yet introduced to my career-self was that I wanted to marry and settle down.” (Shazia, mum of 3)

4. Motherhood – the first years

The joy and delight of watching the children grow in the early years was identified unanimously as a key step in the decision to leave full time work. Annie (mum of 3): “I preferred the option of being at home when my children were small”; Lisa (mum of 1): ”I wanted to spend as much time as possible with her in her childhood, so as to be the person to whom she’d turn for comfort. I don’t want to feel like I am missing out on many of her first achievements”; Emily (mum of 2): “You can’t get those pre-school years back. One of my favourite secretaries from the law firm where I trained used to say to me, “If you ever have kids, make sure you’re not working when they’re small – you miss so much!” I must say, I didn’t really appreciate what she meant until I got there and had kids of my own but now I totally get it. Everyone is different and staying at home with the kids won’t necessarily suit everyone”.

5. Motherhood – the Employer’s choice

Redundancy as a result of becoming a mother and the loss of confidence as a result of this discrimination can hit women really hard. One of our lawyers, who wished to remain anonymous: “Whilst I was on maternity, a new head of legal was appointed. Then, also whilst I was on maternity leave, I was made redundant. I was disappointed by these events as I had thoroughly enjoyed working as an in-house counsel. I could not help but feel that there was some discrimination against me as I had become a mother with family responsibilities”.

6. Motherhood & work balance

It’s a very personal decision and I am striving to find the right balance between enjoying work as a transactional lawyer and devoting as much time as possible to my daughter. I think my needs and my daughter’s needs will change over time and working flexibly keeps me up to speed with the latest legal developments and will allow me to dip in and out of employment

Lisa

I started to feel like the children always needed more of me than my work commitments would allow me to give. I made what now seems to me to be a brave and entirely positive decision to do one thing really well, rather than two things at less than the level of perfection I always set myself. I am so glad to have made the choice I did

Kate

I felt like I was missing out on my kids’ development and quite honestly, I was jealous of the nanny. Flexible working and choosing lifestyle over work suddenly makes so much sense.”

Emily

When I returned to law, after spending 5 happy, busy years raising my 3 children, my preference was to have a greater degree of control over my hours than I had while in private practice, while at the same time doing interesting and challenging work

Annie

7. The shift in priorities

Mothers often yield to the needs of those around them – from children to their extended families. It is certainly true that “your priorities shift after having kids and money isn’t everything” (Emily). Having a child with special needs, as Kate discovered, made her realise that “unknowingly coping” rather than putting the children first was the wrong way around and she quickly quit to do the mothering thing right. Shazia initially relocated to a non-English jurisdiction to follow the husband in his career move, only to then realise that was “career suicide” but after having her first child she too was “overwhelmed with responsibility, excitement and love for my daughter to the point that nothing else mattered.

One of our lawyers sums up the challenges for professional mums better than I could ever do. As a mother, much has to be considered – from the the expense of paying for childcare, to the practicalities of coordinating the diaries of family members, to the drop off or pick up as well as manage to work after being “on call” though the night. She said: “Despite legislation and social changes, women are still carer for children and look after the home. I feel that there is still a lot more work to be done by businesses to support mothers”.