Shami Chakrabarti: Women leading the way

Wednesday 22-10-2014 - 14:56

As part of our ongoing feature, Women leading the way, we speak to Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, to discuss what can be done to encourage more women to seek leadership positions.


Tell us a bit about your background?

I started out as a lawyer; I suppose I still am a lawyer. I read for the bar and I did pupillage, I was in private practice for a very short time before I saw an opening at the home office.I was always fascinated with what we call public law and constitutional law, judicial review, the relationship between the state and people and the relationship between law and policy and politics.

That’s how I saw the law, not as a means of making money but as a means of achieving hopefully positive changes for people. So I got a job as a lawyer in the home office and I was there from 1996 until the summer of 2001. And it was fascinating work.I worked initially for home secretary Michael Howard for a year and then of course, we had the 1997 ‘Things can only get better’ General Election and New Labour came to power.

So even though I only worked in the department for a bit less than six years, I did have the experience of working for Conservative and Labour home secretaries. Most of my time there was when Jack Straw was home secretary.

I served ministers and senior civil servants during those two governments, worked on legislation and litigation in the higher courts and the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and learned so much I think in that time in government.

But after a while I realised that I’d been promoted a couple of times, I loved the work, but to be a career government lawyer and a civil servant, I would have to go and work in the Treasury or Transport or at another department and that wasn’t really my thing.

I was interested most of all in home affairs and I saw another advert, this time it was the summer of 2001 during the election campaign. I saw an advert to be a lawyer at Liberty and Liberty was an organisation that I’d always admired in terms of its values and its litigation but I thought for some time from the outside that it wasn’t doing as well as it might in terms of its campaigning and its advocacy in the public square outside the courtroom.

I remembered from my law student days the time when Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman had run it and taken on the government in court and so on, and I was intrigued by the advert and I applied for the job and the board of Liberty, at the time, gave it to me. So I went to work at Liberty, first as a lawyer, and my first day at work was the day before 9/11.

I had been hired to inject a bit more strategic thinking into Liberty’s litigation approach. I remember having that day of thinking, what will the challenges be over the next few years, what should the litigation priorities be? And of course the next day, with the tragic events of 9/11, that naval-gazing wasn’t required anymore, because it was quite clear what the agenda was going to be.

There was going to be a security clampdown, we had ministers saying very quickly, people need to get used to having no privacy, we had internment without charge or trial almost immediately on both sides of the Atlantic. The priorities were pretty much set for us.

Did you feel, in terms of women in leadership, that you were facing any issues as a woman going into that side of work?

I think that the civil service was broadly a much easier place to be a woman than the bar was. When I was a young barrister, sexism was still really still pretty rife and I saw even older, quite successful women, even some of them QCs being treated differently from their male contemporaries and that was sort of part of the whole sort of chummy, blokey vibe at the bar, certainly in some chambers.

Civil service felt, for the most part, more progressive. It’s a more collegiate and less competitive environment and there were all sorts of good things in terms of benefits to encourage women. However, at the very top, you could still sometimes see evidence of sexism in the workplace.

Women being resented when they were in positions of authority or giving tough instructions, being sort of characterised as overly harsh or uncaring when a man wouldn’t. I was once asked by a senior colleague in relation to a woman who we were hiring, what her personal circumstances were and this was in a discussion about what grade of pay she should start on, and the question was really about, whether she had a husband to keep her, in which case, she could start on the lower salary.

Years later, when I left to go and work at Liberty, and this caused some people some consternation, the same person apparently said that I had been of statistical benefit to the department.

So, you know, there is sexism everywhere and sometimes it’s at its most rife when people feel threatened. That’s no surprise, but I don’t feel I’ve been very often actively held back because I’ve experienced far more kindness and encouragement and wisdom and advice and solidarity than I’ve received of the less favourable treatment.

In more general terms, what sort of barriers do you feel women might face going for leadership roles?

There is this understandable human instinct towards self-replication. I think, it’s very very easy for people to recruit in their own image and not even realise they’re doing it and therefore, it’s hard to break through that and ensure that we are not unconsciously looking for people like ourselves and blocking the opportunities for people who look or are different.

That is a problem at the top in lots of professions; it seems to be a problem in politics, the judiciary and the boardroom. It goes on and on. But, I just think women have to help each other and men need to help women and we just need to try a lot harder.

I think confidence can sometimes be an issue as well. I have interviewed a lot of people, a lot of brilliant young people, for jobs here at Liberty, and it’s a cliché but it’s true.

You put the requirements for the job, the essential requirements and the desirable requirements in the job description and so often, a young man will oversell and a young woman will just undersell and be full of her anxieties and deficiencies whereas the young man will say ‘yeah I wrote a press release once, that means I’m a very experienced press officer’, whereas the woman who perhaps has significant experience will sometimes undersell. It’s interesting; it’s a tricky balance to get right.

Do you think women should be encouraged to become more confident and aim to put themselves forward more, or that there should be a cultural change of people looking for different qualities?

I think, as someone who has now done a lot of recruiting, and sat on a lot of interview boards, that there is room for a bit of change on both sides of the table. I do think that women should be encouraged to be more confident, by their friends, supporters, mentors, each other.

And I also think smart employers shouldn’t just look for the most bullish, overconfident candidate, because they could be overselling and they might also not be the best colleague.

At the end of the day, we are a small organisation here, so recruitment is one of the most important things that we do. Getting it right is incredibly important because the less than 30 or so employees that we have here are our biggest resource.

The total budget of Liberty is less than 2 million pounds a year; this is the resource. We can’t afford for anybody not to be right and highly successful and productive in the team.

But also, they have to get along together, because it’s a bit like a family as well as a highly professional campaigning outfit. So I think that employers should be looking for someone who’s confident but not arrogant, someone who is a good team player and not just a show off. But I think that young women candidates in particular can work on the confidence.

Have you seen a change in people who have been successful and how they present themselves?

I have seen a change I think. I’ve been director now for ten years and I’m happy to say that the candidates just get stronger and stronger and they become more and more knowledgeable about, and committed to, human rights values.

Maybe ten years ago, you saw more people who just wanted to be MPs and thought this would be a good springboard and now you see people who are committed human rights folk who’ve got proven credentials, whether it’s voluntary work or what they studied at college or just in their written statements and the way they answer pretty searching questions.

We give a mean interview I’ve been told, we ask some pretty difficult questions and put some quite tough dilemmas in front of people and they just get better and better. But I’m also heartened to see so many young women in particular wanting to come into human rights, including in senior positions.

When I started as a lawyer here, a lot of junior staff were women, but the director and all his senior management team were men. The board was about nine people, eight of them were men.

It was just classic and it was wrong; it’s a human rights organisation and I’m delighted to say that has changed and now we have a majority of women on both board and on the management team which broadly represents the complexion of the staff.

How did you feel about being a Leveson assessor, there were two women to four men? That was such a high profile situation, was it good to have two women assessors, or did you feel that wasn’t enough, or it doesn’t need to be 50/50?

I think I would always aspire, if I were making appointments myself, I think 50/50 is always a good aspiration, but it was a real pleasure to be an assessor with Eleanor Goodman, a very experienced political journalist.

She really brought a lot of vital experience to the table, as did the others. I guess it was partly dictated by the complexity of that particular enquiry, it had a retired chief constable and a regulator and so on.

Yeah, it was 2 out of 6 and we were advisors rather than a board as such, but I think the aspiration in cabinet and in the boardroom and in everywhere else would ideally be 50/50.

Women can be quite underrepresented in students’ unions and in NUS positions, but that is changing. Do you think it’s encouraging more young women are seeking those roles and responsibilities?

I wasn’t a student politician, but let’s face it, student politics is an obvious training ground for politics and so I think it’s incredibly important that young women experiment with student politics and go for leadership positions within it and it’s vital they get support and solidarity from their male counterparts.

Sometimes, student politics can be notorious for the ruthlessness of the competition, I’m sure it’s better these days but when I was a student, one of the things that put me off was some of the ruthless competition from people who are desperate to be MPs.

I hope that’s changing but it’s really important that young women put themselves forward and it would be, as I say, a really good nursery slope, petri dish, confidence building place as a prelude, I think, to a career in public life.

Is there anything in particular the student movement could do to promote women taking up more leadership positions?

I think there’s always more that we can all do. I think that it’s about going up to individual people and inviting them to come forward. It’s about having seminars on public speaking or on media work, or on other skills that are important in student politics.

It’s about explaining all those complicated standing orders, it’s about looking at every potential barrier to somebody coming forward, everything that might be off-putting.

If the union seems too cliquey, do something social to make it less cliquey. If the rule book is too intimidating, simplify the rule book or explain it to people.

If people are nervous about public speaking, give them training opportunities and sometimes it’s just about the women who are already in a leadership position just actively, individually recruiting their younger friends and colleagues I think.

NUS have been working hard to tackle lad culture in students’ unions. Do you think things like Page 3 and lad culture is becoming a real barrier for women?

Look, it’s a very odd phenomenon, isn’t it, that we have newspapers that still have women’s breasts on display. A little while ago, there was a row, every so often there’s a row about the veil, which is a tiny minority of Muslim women who wear the veil in Britain, it’s really not a massive deal. But whenever there’s a debate, it’s often quite loaded and it’s really a sort of cipher for other things that are going on.

And a certain newspaper that can remain nameless was very upset with me for saying it makes no sense to ban the veil. If you really think that women are being forced to wear the veil, if you criminalise them for it, you’re going to make them more vulnerable.

If you do what’s been done in France and elsewhere, make it impossible for women in certain kinds of dress to go to university, to go out into the public space, you are going to make them more the prisoner and not emancipate them.

So don’t pretend that calls for bans on face-covering are feminism, they aren’t. It is racism and xenophobia masquerading as a women’s liberation tool. So I said this because I believe it.

And a certain newspaper got very cross and said ‘so-called feminists like Shami Chakrabarti are speaking up for the veil’ which I wasn’t and this newspaper came to Liberty for a comment after my so-called feminism had been impugned and the quote that we gave them was that my feminist heart doesn’t leap with joy when I see a women covered from head to toe but nor does it leap when I see bare breasts on anybody’s breakfast table, but I don’t think a ban would work either way.

Surprise surprise; that quote wasn’t carried, so you heard it here first. It is odd. As the mother of a son, I think it is odd that we have these kind of images of women, in particular, as opposed to men and women, but women in particular, that are so commonplace.

But I think that it will change and I suspect it will just organically change because people will find it increasingly ridiculous and I can just see the market for it disappearing within my lifetime.

What would you say to any young women heading to the workplace that may face sexism?

Sexism is not something that anybody needs to put up with any more than racism or homophobia. There are different tools for dealing with it at different moments in different places and I think that that’s really naturally the question.

What is the approach to the problem in any particular context? Sometimes it’s as simple as dealing with it with sarcasm and humour, sometimes you can deal with it by yourself, sometimes you need the solidarity and support of a group of people coming together and saying that behaviour is unacceptable, sometimes you have to make a formal complaint.

There are different tools at your disposal and talking about these things and talking to women who’ve been through it before can be incredibly helpful, I think. I have benefited throughout my career from the advice and the support and the protection of older, more senior women and I now consider it a personal responsibility to pass it on and to do the same for my younger colleagues and potential colleagues and members and so on.

And that is not an ideological, intellectual feminism of lots of different tracts and having read lots of stuff, that’s just my practical feminism of the experience.

What work is Liberty doing that particularly speaks to the idea of women in leadership?

Well, for example, we are participating in the ‘Women of the World’ festival on the Southbank next year during our 80th year. We’ve become more and more involved in that project.

It’s a fantastic feminist festival that’s just been growing in influence and in scope and in size since it was founded by my friend Jude Kelly a few years ago. We’ve also spoken at UK Feminista events and definitely see gender equality as a human rights issue. Women have always played a really important part in our movement.

Tragically, the chair of our charitable trust died just over a week ago, but she gave so much of her life to Liberty from her teenage years, from coming to London in her late teens to study right up until the day she died.

She was all about building the organisation, promoting the people within it, she wanted a decent working environment and working conditions for me and my colleagues. But she also always saw gender justice as a human rights issue.

Her name was Christine Jackson and she’s very much in my thoughts and in my heart as we have this conversation about the next generation of women.

Who is your role model?

I have been so lucky, I’ve always had women to look up to and who’ve put a hand out and pulled me up as well, it’s not just been looking up to people from afar.

It’s an extraordinary privilege that I’ve had to be able to meet my heroes and actually talk to them so when I was in government, my boss, mentor, heroine and encourager, was a woman called Juliet Wheldon, who was the first woman home office legal advisor and then became the first woman treasury solicitor, that’s the chief government lawyer, an extraordinary lawyer and human being.

When I came into campaigning, I met Helena Kennedy who I’d looked up to since childhood. She wouldn’t like me to say that, because that might suggest she’s six months older than me.

But I remember watching Helena do a TV show called Rough Justice when I was a child and a teenager and I remember thinking that is exactly the kind of values that I would like to pursue in my life. And then I heard her speak when I was a law student and then I got to have her as a friend and collaborator and fellow trouble-maker in my adult professional life.

The list goes on. I think the most important thing I can say about role models though is that I am now at a stage when some of my role models are younger than me. My young female colleagues at Liberty in particular teach me so much and that’s not surprising in this new world of new media and so on.

I think I’m at a stage of my life where in my middle years, I’m hopefully as capable of learning from people who are a bit younger as I am from people who are a bit older than I am.


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