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In celebration of International Women’s Day, we are sharing a blog written by Alexa, a care leaver who wanted to share her personal experiences, who inspires her most, and what her greatest accomplishment is.

I am a pupil barrister at Garden Court North Chambers in Manchester, working in the areas of social security, benefits, and social welfare law. Before that, I spent several years working in the charity advice sector at Citizens Advice and elsewhere, providing debt, housing and benefits advice. I was an Advocate for the Free Representation Unit where I appeared in a two-day employment tribunal case. I interned with a US forensics genetics firm supporting forensic geneticists and criminal defence attorneys in death row cases and post-conviction reviews of DNA evidence. I also volunteered with Street law, compiling research on the rights of the homeless.

Which woman inspires you the most?

My mother-in-law, Fiona. She is a GP and Clinical Director. She has faced material disadvantage due to her gender: for instance, when she applied to study medicine at university, she had to obtain grades that were much higher than her male peers to get accepted onto the course. It was not common for women to be accepted into university at all. She has helped me navigate my way into the legal profession, which is similarly marked by a male culture. There are also still material obstacles to be overcome.

I find her inspiring for many reasons. Fiona is unapologetic in who she is: she does not make herself small to conform or fit in; instead, she takes up space that women are typically not given in professional contexts and uses that space responsibly. She is outspoken about her values and does not compromise on them, even in difficult situations where this might cost her. She is always kind and supportive and, despite often politically sensitive situations, she always tries to build up colleagues. She invests in mentoring relationships, especially with other women, minorities, and young people. She does not shy away from difficult conversations but faces up to important issues and creates a collaborative environment with others to confront them.

Have you faced any barriers in your career due to being a woman?

I have experienced the kind of everyday sexism common to many professions, such as flirtatious and inappropriate behaviour from colleagues. Early in my legal career, before I got pupillage, I was told by one senior lawyer that I ‘shouldn’t become a barrister, because no-one will pay your maternity leave.’ I had observed prejudice against women having children and a career in law: for instance, in my law conversion course, I observed that nearly all of my tutors were women who had been pushed out of their firms when they started a family because their firms were unwilling to accept part-time working arrangements. This lawyer may have felt that he was being realistic, but that kind of comment to a young woman entering the profession could put someone off entirely: it is really a form of gatekeeping.

One more entrenched difficulty with the Bar is that the arts of advocacy are a reflection of privileged male socialisation. I first experienced this when I was doing mooting competitions, which are mock trials where competitors orally present legal arguments. In moots I noticed quickly that I was scoring highly for my arguments and less well in advocacy skills and presentation. I analysed my competitors and noted that those getting better marks were men who presented with confidence regardless of the content of their argument and spoke loudly and assertively with a queen’s English accent. These kinds of soft skills are a part of ordinary socialisation for many men, particularly those from private schools and Oxbridge; and as a woman from a state school I have had to learn the unspoken rules of the game and play catch-up in order to become recognised as a good advocate.

What’s your biggest achievement?

My biggest achievement is getting pupillage.

As a care leaver, I didn’t think I would make it to university, let alone start a career as a barrister. I was fortunate enough to receive two offers of pupillage from brilliant barristers’ chambers, who both saw my potential and the professional advantages I offer as someone from a care-experienced background.

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