Breaking moulds

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Speak up and speak out, or we simply pay lip service to equality: a personal account of being ‘othered’ at the Bar and why together we are stronger. By Sunyana Sharma

‘Indian girls don’t make it as barristers,’ he said. ‘Be an accountant or doctor. They accept Asians.’ Born and brought up in Sidcup – the constituency of former Prime Minister Edward Heath – I had never been told I couldn’t do something or be someone. And yet I knew deep down it wouldn’t be plain sailing.

When I walked in on my first day of pupillage, I couldn’t quite believe it. I had defied the odds; having made hundreds of applications and sitting in front of numerous interview panels, I really didn’t think I would make it. I knew I was different. I did not fit the mould. Very few successful barristers looked like me. Added to that, I had been offered pupillage out in the provinces, so there really was no one like me.

My working class parents were your typical Indian shopkeepers – working day and night to provide for their kids. They got me through university and Bar school. Being the first generation to attend university, I knew that my dreams were my parents’ dreams. And so I walked into pupillage in 2007 in trouser suit, large collared shirt, braces and shiny shoes, looking just like my male counterparts with every intention to ‘play the game’.

Over the years, I have learnt that being a woman at the Bar is exhausting. If you’re assertive, you get labeled ‘rotweiler’ or told ‘you’re such a bitch’. You ignore the sexual innuendos and comments in and out of the robing room from solicitors, clients and barristers. You put up with questions from clerks in practice development meetings on when you are going to have babies (thankfully no longer my clerk!). You witness and experience female judges unnecessarily giving female barristers a rough ride. But add to that a splash of colour, and your journey just got much harder.

Overtones, undertones and stereotypes

Imagine being a young Asian barrister walking into an eight handed sentence in a ‘Conspiracy to handle stolen goods’ picked up the night before. You look around you. All the defendants are young white men, the barristers are white men, and the judge is a white male. The complexion of the courtroom was no different to what I was used to. But that feeling of being out of place and not ‘one of them’ was so obvious to me when my male counterparts ignored me and carried on as if I wasn’t there (except for the one member of my Chambers, I hasten to add).

To make matters worse, I could see the quizzical look of my client’s mother as I took instructions from her son. Why had they sent her? Why not someone taller? Older? Whiter? Male? Some of you reading this will think that I am being far too sensitive. But I didn’t even think my race or gender was an issue until after the sentence, when my client’s mother said to me: ‘You were better than all those men. They thought they were better than you but you showed them. I was worried when I saw you but I should have known better.’

This is just one of many experiences I have had over the years. However, it has only been since the death of George Floyd that it has dawned on me that racial undertones, stereotypes and attitudes still exist at the Bar. Don’t believe me? Well, let me tell you another story. I had recently got married and moved to London with my husband and his parents. Living with the in-laws is still a common feature in my culture. I was excited to return to a robing room on Circuit in which I had spent many years. It was busy, bustling and I was catching up with old friends. An ex-colleague, upon seeing me shouted: ‘So how’s your sex life, with your in-laws in the next room?’ The vulgar comments kept coming, and said barrister went on to tell every lawyer who entered the room about his views on my living arrangements. My anger has subsided but the embarrassment of that incident still makes me cringe today.

There are some things you just get used to, like the countless times you get asked ‘where are you from?’ when Sidcup doesn’t cut it. I once commented on how beautiful an area in Hampshire was, and how much it reminded me of home, when a colleague replied: ‘What, India?’ and started laughing. When I reminded him I was from Kent and my folks were born in Kenya, he realised his error but it was too late. And then you get mistaken for that other female Asian barrister in your Chambers or people tell you there must be something wrong with you because you don’t eat meat and don’t drink. What about when you get asked if you’re the interpreter or usher when you turn up to court?

So how do you progress in a profession in which you are ‘othered’? You watch as your white male counterparts who have been on the same trajectory as you fly past, leaving you static and stagnant. You witness black and Asian barristers leaving the Bar or their chambers as they feel unsupported or unaccepted.

After being in practice for over a decade, I should not have to justify myself to new clients; yet I still get asked about my age, my experience, and my time at the Bar. It can feel like you are constantly trying to prove yourself even before you open your mouth. I could have left the Bar many times but I stayed because I love what I do and I realise that the Bar needs people like me. Many in the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic community do not feel the justice system works for them, that it is fair, or that it listens. Those that represent and judge them need to understand cultural contexts through increased awareness and supporting diversity. When my black and Asian clients thank me for listening, understanding, empathising and telling their side of the story, I know that I have restored someone’s faith in the system.

What now? What can we do?

Don’t convince yourself that you can’t be racist because you have Asian and black friends. Each one of us has preconceived notions and attitudes toward people who are different to us. No matter how uncomfortable or unpleasant it may feel to talk about race, it is time to speak up and speak out.

Acknowledge that there is a lack of diversity and inclusion at the Bar, amongst silks and in the judiciary. Listen to your BAME colleagues and ask them how they have been treated and affected by the death of George Floyd. Each one of us has our own story to tell. Policies and fairer representation are a step in the right direction but if we do not start to educate ourselves, staff and pupils, and if we do not talk about behaviours and attitudes, we simply pay lip service to equality.

Notwithstanding negative experiences, I acknowledge that I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for my colleagues, clerks and judges who have seen past race and colour. To those who have always supported me, thank you.

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Sunyana Sharma

Sunyana Sharma of 3PB specialises in health and safety, inquests, professional disciplinary and maritime law. She is a committee member of BarNone, a group aimed at encouraging the strongest possible applications from under represented groups on the Western Circuit.