What You Wish You’d Known

Big Voice London works with young people from more socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, who often do not have any contact with lawyers to advise them on the steps they could take for a successful career in law.

This is a call out to lawyers and law students out there! Looking back, what do you wish you’d known about a career in law when you were 16? What mistakes can you help others avoid?

Please tell us your stories and advice at the bottom of this post: they can be serious or humorous, signed or anonymous. Your advice will directly benefit young people considering a career in law.

What Now?

We are looking at inviting some guest posts and we are also currently planning what we will focus on for 2012 (you can learn about our work in 2011 here).

We want to do everything we can to improve legal access and equality before the law and we would like you to share with us any ideas you might have or topics you are passionate about.

  • What are the worst inequalities in our society and how can we work towards making them better?
  • How can we make sure vulnerable people aren’t disadvantaged in the legal system or that rights are only there for the rich?
  • Do you have any experience or ideas on broadening diversity in the legal professions?

If you do have any ideas or thoughts that you would like to share them please put them as a comment below. We hope our voice will be stronger if we work together.

An art installation in the South African Constitutional Court symbolises the South African journey to equality.

In Search of a Just Education

Over the last year the Big Voice London youth empowerment project has been looking at ways we could improve access to justice and the rule of law in the UK. Last night they launched their first report in the Speaker’s Rooms at the House of Commons.The full report is available here.

The Report

Equality and the Law is the culmination of 12 months hard work by a diverse group of young people who have come together from across London. The young people worked in three groups, all approaching equality under the law and legal access from slightly different perspectives. Each group researched and made recommendations on two sections for the report.

The Equality and Diversity group looked at:

Diversity: the enriching value and increased legitimacy of a diverse judiciary in a multicultural society, recommending increased affirmative action. Also more support for supporting diverse opinion in legal debate, recommending the establishment of a Youth Law Commission.

An NGO Case Study focussing on Southall Black Sisters: the role of NGOs in campaigning for legal change, in particular around the importance of language (e.g. so called ‘honour’ killings) and calling for a change to the defences to murder.

The Legal Agency group looked at:

Equality and Alternative Dispute Resolution: expressing support for ADR, but concern that it could be treated as a compulsory part of the legal system and that there is not adequate regulation, particularly of religious ADR.

The Fairness of Unfitness to Plead: reflecting on the Law Commission’s recent consultation and recommending a less absolute test, with more attention to individual needs and special measures.

The Political Agency group looked at:

Legal Education: making recommendations for improvements to citizenship classes (they would like to see this subject mainstreamed throughout the curriculum), A Level Law (should be more academic) and rights education across society (recommending a written constitution to make rights more accessible).

Access to Judicial Review: the barriers to approaching the legal system to confront abuses of power and the strengths of Protected Costs Orders versus Qualified One-Way Costs. This group would like to see more CFAs (‘no win no fee’) for public law cases. The proposed cuts to legal aid are also a cause for concern.

This report is currently being circulated to legal experts and policy makers who could not attend the launch. If you would like a paper copy of the report then please do get in touch.

Privilege – Part 3 of a Lawyer’s Introduction to Feminism

This article builds on Parts 1 and 2 of a Lawyer’s Introduction to Feminism.

I have used some terminology about discrimination, as well as a basic introductions to feminism and patriarchy in my introduction so far. To close I want to briefly touch on the concept of privilege.

When I talk to my male friends about feminism I am often greeted with a slight defensive hostility, a sort of “well it’s not my fault, I didn’t do anything”. Which is right, most men are not ‘oppressors of women’ (or at least usually no more than many woman are), but they do benefit from a system that discriminates against women and privileges men. Basically privilege is a word used to describe the advantages that one social group have that another don’t.

When I recently visited South Africa I was vividly aware of the evolving status of my white, middle class privilege. In some contexts it would mean people would be extra polite to me or that white strangers would feel kinship towards me, but in other situations it could be actively dangerous, for example marking me out as a target for (constant) sexual harassment on the street.

It is a hard thing to notice, your own privilege, since to you it is just a part of your everyday life. A few years ago I was at an Indian airport not long after a terrorist attack and so there was a very high security alert. I beamed in a white, middle class, young female way at a security guard to convince him to let me take a novelty carved coconut onto the plane, despite it being filled with liquid (which was banned). He let me do so. It was only afterwards that I realised he could have lost his job for me to take a novelty toy home.

Male privilege is the advantage you have because you are a man living in a patriarchal country. It isn’t your fault that you are male – just as it isn’t my fault that I am more intelligent than some people and less intelligent than others – it is an accident of birth and we should all be able to feel proud of who we are.

However it does give you some power that others do not have and you are responsible for how you use that power. I feel that my white, middle class privilege is an entitlement that comes with responsibility and hope my male friends feel the duty to eliminate discrimination that comes with benefiting from it.

The fight for gender equality would be more quickly won if men would surrender their male privilege. If you are such a man I ask you to mutiny, join our side and fight with us, hand in hand.

Next Steps

For up to date statistics and resources on women’s equality visit the Women’s Resource Centre.

Regard the ‘Male Privilege Checklist‘ (possibly without taking it too seriously).

If you are based in London the Women in London directory is a fabulous way to keep up to date with feministy things, as is the (national) Eaves weekly bulletin.

Read the F Word.

Take action to eliminate gender discrimination and call for substantive equality for women in the future.

Systemic Sexism – Part 2 of a Lawyer’s Introduction to Feminism

This article builds on Part 1 of a Lawyer’s Introduction to Feminism.

Sexism

Magazine feature from 'Beauty Parade' in March 1952 stereotyping women drivers. The model is Bettie Page.

Sexism is a belief that one sex is naturally superior to the other. However sexism can be more nuanced than simply believing women’s brains overheat if they think too much.

For example, the extreme focus on women’s appearance is sexist because it suggests a woman’s worth and value is predominantly based on how she looks, rather than on her skills, intellect and talents.

Furthermore, stereotyping women into ‘carer’ roles defines them by the people around them (mother, wife, daughter) rather than as an agent in their own right, or as Baroness Scotland said at our recent report launch ‘as arbitors of our own fate’.

Systemic Sexism

If you can accept that there is sexism that is a systemic problem due to historic discrimination (c.f. Part 1), then you can begin to see why it can be so difficult to identify and challenge. Apparently innocuous things build up to create a society that perpetrates oppressive ideologies and practices. People are reluctant to challenge the status quo, because it is often part of their own identity, for example gender roles we were brought up with. This systemic sexism is what the term ‘patriarchy’ refers to. Patriarchy basically refers to a system that places power in the control of men.

The Debutante (1807) by Henry Fuseli; The woman, a victim of social convention, is tied to the wall, made to sew and guarded by governesses.

The gendering of the terms ‘feminism’ and ‘patriarchy’ can make it challenging to understand that in the context of gender discrimination in the current socio-political system both men and women are sexist. ‘The patriarchy’ does not refer to a male conspiracy to seize power, but a society that privileges men.

Similarly, feminism is equally vital to both men and women. From personal relationships to professional relationships, international peace-building to environmental and financial planning, the absolute equality of women is vital. A transformed culture where men and women make decisions without gender stereotyping, would create a society that can benefit from the skill and talent of the whole population.

Note: in focusing on defining patriarchy I have limited my discussion to more indirect, institutional sexism. That does not mean that individual women or groups (and feminists can become particular targets) are not victims of direct sexist abuse or discrimination.

Next Steps

Read the Equality Illusion by UK Feminista founder Kat Banyard

Learn about the Fawcett Society’s Sexism and the City campaign

Voyage into Bad Reputation’s feminist pop culture blog with beautiful articles on everything from transphobia to reviews of musicians so cool I’ve never heard of them (but you all probably have)

Read Part 3 of a Lawyer’s Introduction to Feminism

Discrimination – Part 1 of a Lawyer’s Introduction to Feminism

If there is anything you would like to add to this introduction, any comments, evidence or suggestions, then please do comment at the bottom of this post or email me at bigvoice2011[at]gmail.com.

Before we get to the F word itself, let’s have a quick introduction to discrimination.

Discrimination

In life we discriminate whenever we select one option over another, for example university admissions tutors discriminate between different applicants. Discrimination is only unlawful when we base our decision on unacceptable criteria. In the UK these criteria (known as protected characteristics) are set out in the Equality Act 2010.

Discrimination can be direct (I don’t want to hire you because you are black) or indirect (I will only hire people over 6 foot tall, which indirectly impacts on women). The Equality Act defines discrimination as ‘less favourable treatment’ of a person because of a protected characteristic.

Discrimination can be deliberate or unintentional (perhaps through lack of consideration or understanding). It can also be institutional. Institutional racial discrimination was examined in the 1999 Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and defined as:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin”, which “can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes, and behaviour, which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping, which disadvantages minority ethnic people”.

Challenging systemic, in-built discrimination

Roughly speaking, feminism challenges institutional discrimination against women. Historically, women were treated much less favourably than men, with a legal status similar to children: they couldn’t own property, couldn’t vote and needed a man to speak for them in court. It was in this context that most of our political, military, education, legal, financial and cultural institutions were founded. While there have been great improvements to reflect changing cultural norms in these institutions, they can often only be ‘improved’ on so much.

Without a more radical overhaul of our institutions and systems it is difficult for us to realise true gender equality.

Feminist academic and political theorist Carol Patemen follows this idea further, arguing that at a fundamental level the economic and philosophical basis of our society (the social contract) is reliant on a collateral contract of sexual discrimination, “an unwritten contract for exchange: economic support and protection given by the male for subordination in all matters, sexual service and unpaid domestic service given by the female”.

Institutional Discrimination in the Criminal Justice System

As an example, our prison system was developed in a period where women rarely went to prison. Police custody suites were not designed with mixed genders in mind and today women are expected to ask for sanitary towels and (in Brixton police station at least) the men’s section of the custody suite has to be closed if a female prisoner needs to have a shower.

While every case is different, the profile of women in the criminal justice system is different from male offenders. Women in prison are more likely to be there for non-violent acquisitive crimes and are more likely than men to have been experiencing a crisis in their lives (mental illness, abuse, poverty etc). Women in prison have fewer qualifications than male prisoners, are less likely to have previous convictions, over 50% have been victims of domestic violence and around 30% are victims of sexual abuse. Women in prison are 36 times more likely than the general population to commit suicide, compared with 8 times more likely for men.

While a period in prison is not celebrated by most men, it does not decrease their perceived masculinity. For women, on the other hand, they feel their femininity is diminished and the commodification of prisoners (‘here are your 6 tampons for the month’) increases feelings of dislocation and isolation. Finally 9 out of 10 single parents are women and so women prisoners are more likely than male prisoners to leave a child without a primary carer when they are sentenced. For more information on this issue see the 2007 Corston Report.

This is not a deliberate collusion of ‘powerful men’ to subjugate women, this is not the fault of any individual man or woman, this is a problem with a system. Feminism is a movement to challenge institutions, stereotypes and practices that discriminate against women.

Discrimination against Women

I particularly like the definition of discrimination used in Article 1 of the UN Women’s Rights Convention (CEDAW):

“any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field”.

Next Steps

For more information on discrimination see the advice guides from the Citizen’s Advice Bureau.

For an incredibly brilliant insight into sex discrimination in the criminal justice system from a lawyer’s perspective read the inspiring Eve Was Framed, by Helena Kennedy QC.

To get involved with a campaign to improve access to community sentencing and proportionate treatment of women in prison visit Women in Prison.

Read Part 2 of a Lawyer’s Introduction to Feminism.