The principles of fairness and equality run deep in Londoner, Harini Iyengar. Her Indian immigrant parents both worked as NHS doctors and she was brought up in a very ‘Northern, bolshy tradition’. She went to Manchester High School for Girls, a ‘very feminist and progressive’ environment, where the Pankhurst daughters were educated, as were Edith Hesling, the first woman called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn and Carrie Morrison, the first British female solicitor.

Harini then read law at the ‘very traditional’ Brasenose College, Oxford and has said it took her a ‘long time to accept that there are people in society who just don’t believe in equality’. She never had a tutorial with another woman ‘which would have been nice’ and was cautioned against rocking the boat on numerous occasions. (She has since been selected as one of its 12 most inspiring and extraordinary female alumni.)

Interestingly, Harini has said that she felt a lot more respected as a woman once she got to the Bar. She has always been a working-barrister-lone-parent and was seven months’ pregnant when called in 1999. She is a mother of three with an employment law practice increasingly in the public eye (‘it’s very exciting when something you’ve been working on and interested in for years suddenly becomes topical and of interest to the public’ she told Legal Cheek) and a formidable CV.

Alongside practising at 11KBW, she is a Bencher at Inner Temple, and sits on the Temple Women’s Forum Steering Group and the Bar Council Retention Panel. Outside the Bar, Harini is a university governor, a founding member of the Women’s Equality Party and their Number One Candidate for the London-wide List in the 2020 Greater London Assembly elections.

As a legal expert, she gave evidence to the House of Commons inquiry into high heels and workplace dress codes and is a regular media commentator, including on BBC’s Newsnight discussing compensation and non-disclosure agreements in sexual harassment cases in light of the Harvey Weinstein allegations.

Another specialism, equality law and the gender pay gap, seized the public’s attention as the government imposed new disclosure rules and the BBC pay revelations hit the headlines. Noticing that she had been giving talks to solicitors about equal pay and gender pay gap reporting, a publisher commissioned her to write a book on the Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations 2017 (A Practical Guide to the Law of Gender Pay Gap Reporting by Harini Iyengar, Law Brief Publishing (April 2019)).

I ask her how easy it was to stick to the brief, given her wider interest in the issue. ‘The core of the book is of course explanation and analysis of the gender pay gap reporting regulations themselves, but it would [have been] boring if I just focused on their legal context and interpretation. I also wrote about the basics of why men and women should be paid equally and some of the historic background to the right to equal pay for equal work in Britain.

‘One element which [went down refreshingly well] is a chapter called “Beyond Compliance to Best Practice”. As lawyers we talk about what’s wrong with the law and what the loopholes and ambiguities are, but we don’t always talk about how and why our clients should strive for best practice.’

Harini makes clear that the book is fundamentally about the enforcement of equal pay law. I ask her to explain: ‘Although the gender pay gap and unequal pay are not the same thing, the reasons for both are complex, linked and intertwined in real life. In my mind these regulations are a tool to try and improve enforcement of equal pay law,’ she says.

This broad approach has widened its appeal: Women on Boards have called for the book to be given to CEOs and legal heads of department and Bloomberg has recommended it to business. As to the reception within the legal profession, I suspect that Dame Elizabeth Gloster, former Lady Justice of the Court of Appeal and Vice-President of the Court of Appeal (Civil), would not have written the Foreword had she not approved: ‘She would have told me to do it again! I have been very lucky to get to know Liz over the years since interviewing her for the Inner Temple Oral History Project. It means a lot to me that she liked the book.’

It follows that Harini doesn’t foresee the regulations themselves being a growth area for litigation. ‘It’s so difficult for individual employees to get behind these crude pay gap reporting figures to check their accuracy,’ but they may be a stimulus for equal pay claims because they have got people and, significantly, the media talking.

There are no sanctions for non-compliance. She considers that ‘the exercise that companies and public sector employers have been made to do has forced them to look at a lot of wider workplace equality issues and I think most commentators, including me, want a proper narrative to accompany the figures. One of the many shortcomings of the regulations it that it’s not mandatory.’

Are legal rules alone likely to achieve economic and cultural change or do we need reform? ‘The regulations could be made more effective [and in the book I cover] what I think individual organisations and workers should be doing.’ What’s the gist of Harini’s conclusion? ‘That the glacial rate of progress in closing the gender pay gap is unacceptable.’

It seems an appropriate time to ask Harini about her involvement in the Women’s Equality Party. ‘As I learnt more about the law and issues about enforcement... I reached the conclusion that I needed to become politically active to campaign for legal reform and to play a role in improving the quality of the debate and creating practical policy change.’

If you are wondering what that political policy change might look like, the party’s equal pay policies are set out in the book’s appendix. ‘That is the manifesto I stand on,’ Harini declares, with an infectious resolve. She explains that the policies are designed to lift women and as a result ‘everyone benefits – men, children and older people too’.

Writing in the Huffington Post, Harini revealed that the party hand-delivered its manifesto to all the other parties with a note attached: ‘Steal me’. ‘Since the Women’s Equality Party started, we’ve seen other parties pick up our ideas and policies. This was always part of our plan – we just wish they’d take more of them and in greater detail.’

What are her specific plans if elected to the GLA, given it lacks power to modernise the equal pay legislation? Harini’s tack, she says, would be to ensure that it is a best practice employer, leading London employers by example and ‘apply a gender lens to all of its many responsibilities’. That lens has been focused through an interest in economic policy and gender budgeting; Harini has worked with the ‘brilliant’ Women’s Budget Group, whose analysis has informed a lot of Women’s Equality Party economic policy. She is to present a paper on equal pay and austerity at the International Association for Feminist Economics Conference in June.

I ask how the self-employed Bar fares in terms of evidencing best practice. Reflecting on the course of her career, Harini says there has been positive change: ‘The biggest [signifier] for me is that we’ve got the Temple Women’s Forum. Women being able to get together under the auspices of Middle and Inner Temple in that forum, to have meetings, the premises and a budget, and to invite influential speakers, is massive. I’ve been really so happy to be a part of it.’ That said, ‘in terms of getting to a place that’s fair for everybody at the Bar, it’s a big disappointment to me that we’re still far from that place.’

Are the barriers to addressing the gender pay gap at the self-employed Bar cultural rather than practical? ‘The BMIF [Bar Mutual Indemnity Fund] and the Bar Council have plenty of data to compile the type of information the regulations require, and many chambers use electronic time recording,’ she explains, but ‘chambers are disconnected and individually run. Everyone is self-employed with different lifestyles and, within a chambers, are often in competition with each other. People are worried about putting their head above the parapet to discuss pay equality openly in a traditional and hierarchical profession. It has been easier to discuss as a political candidate than as a barrister.’

Both in politics and within the profession, Harini advocates collaboration as the most effective way to achieve rapid change: ‘To address the gender pay gap at the Bar, we must work across chambers and specialisms, and with solicitors and clerks. For example, clerks are not always empowered by chambers to bring in all of their ideas but if we could work together more, we could solve these problems quicker.’ Commending their role in the introduction of paid pupillage and maternity policies, Harini also has faith in the Bar Council: ‘The Bar Council has decades of experience in persuading this awkward profession to embrace change in different ways. Generally, I listen to which strategies they recommend based on their experience.’

Finally, and refreshingly, she says: ‘If we want to diversify the profession and make it inclusive, we all need to be more down to earth. I respect so many people who are very brilliant at the Bar but I don’t think we’re as special as some people think. I don’t like a culture which creates mystique about people who are supposed to be geniuses. With a certain level of intelligence, you can be trained in all the tasks you have to do as a barrister. It’s not a case of having “it” or not.’

I resist the temptation to challenge the suggestion that Harini has not got ‘it’ in buckets and decide that the message is a powerful place to end: whatever our year of call, we are all potential actors for positive change. 

About the interviewer: Caroline Greenfield is a pupil barrister at Atkin Chambers.