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Women in Law

For a long time, the law has been regarded as a male profession. Hurdles in achieving career success and a universal recipe for a functioning work-life balance were among the topics discussed at this Legal Forum panel.

The session was chaired by Elena Borisenko, Deputy Chairman of the Board of Management, Gazprombank JSC. President of the Law Society of England and Wales Christina Blacklaws, International Arbitrator of One Essex Court Dame Elizabeth Gloster, Secretary of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) Anna Joubin-Bret, Former General Counsel of OPEC Asma Muttawa and Judge of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation Natalya Pavlova took part in the panel discussion.

One might think that the most important woman in law is Themis, the goddess of divine justice, but the place of women in the real world of law is far from being that obvious. Today, some of the female lawyers experience gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment at their workplace, Christina Blacklaws, President of the Law Society of England and Wales, told the audience.

However, Elizabeth Gloster, International Arbitrator of One Essex Court, reported that the situation is changing to the better. During her career, Dame Gloster experienced both condescending attitude and downright disrespect by men, like when male judges did not appear to be listening to her in court because they did not want to hear a female voice. “My daughter and my son would probably say that I'm a victim of my own generation because I didn’t have sufficient appreciation of the fact that I was a victim of discrimination. But it didn’t feel like this at that time. Now things have radically changed in this world of ours. I don't think the real issue is actually sexual harassment or work-life balance.  The real issue is economic: can women economically afford to make enough money to be able to take the decision to delegate child caring responsibilities or caring for an elderly parent. And it's not only money, it’s also: do they want to make that lifestyle decision? OK, there may be elements of male subconscious bias lurking around, but I'm not so sure. The reality is that the younger generation is so much better than our generations were about diversity and recognizing the fact that the society has got to be inclusive,” Elizabeth Gloster said.

Anna Joubin-Bret, Secretary of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL), encouraged everyone to pave their own way with skills and personal competences. Ms. Joubin-Bret noted that she had never found herself in a position where she had been discriminated against because she was a woman. “I have always found that what I did, I could do because of my professional qualities and not because of my gender,” Ms. Joubin-Bret emphasized.

Other personal qualities, like the capability to adapt quickly and analyze the situation were among those mentioned by Asma Muttawa, Former General Counsel of OPEC. “I’m a girl who grew up with five brothers, so just to be able to play football, you needed to improve your skills really quickly. So it does not matter what you do whether you are on a management team or just playing with your siblings–it’s about what you want to achieve,” Ms. Muttawa noted.

According to Natalya Pavlova, Judge of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, a certain share of luck to succeed in personal talks, an aligned team to keep you empowered and motivated, family support, balanced distribution of theory and practice and a narrow focus are all indispensable for a successful career. “I’m convinced that spreading oneself too thin is a weird way of doing things, I do not understand this mindset. Of course, you can have several specialisms but you have to stay an expert in your area”, Ms. Pavlova emphasized.

The speakers’ presentations were followed by a Q&A session.  The question which resonated the most with the audience was asked by a man. He asked the speakers on how they evaluated the role of men in their careers.

“People often ask me: Who is the women who inspired you and supported your career? My experience is that men have been really good at mentoring women’s careers at the bar in a totally supportive, non-aggressive and absolutely appropriate way. There is a role for all of us and men support that role,” Elizabeth Gloster replied.

“There are a great number of wonderful supportive men who are gender champions and want to see women in our profession. We’ve got a lot of research. The evidence is compelling: those businesses that have diversity equate with profitability, the businesses that do not, that have a monoculture, they are not as profitable,” Christina Blacklaws added.

“My worst job experience was working in a women-only team. We only achieve success when we are working hand in hand. It is no good when men are working without women and vice versa. A yin-and-yang balance should be present both in life and at work,” commented Elena Borisenko, Deputy Chairman of the Board of Management, Gazprombank JSC.

Concluding the session, Ms. Borisenko summarized three main factors helping women advance in their careers, previously mentioned by all participants: overcoming fear and psychological barriers, providing women with peer support from the professional community and understanding that working together with men is fun, brings joy and new knowledge.

St. Petersburg International Legal Forum is held on May 14–18 in the Eastern Wing of the State Hermitage with the support of the President of the Russian Federation and the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation.