Initially, I was meeting with all women, and some of the stories were heartbreaking. I heard, “I’m just a mom” from women with degrees from Oxford or Cambridge, who spoke multiple languages — clearly high achieving women. You don't get taken by a law firm like, for example my old firm, Linklaters, if you’re not good. They were star pupils, star students, overachieving. Yet, because they had a family, suddenly they weren’t “good” anymore.
A New Version of Success
VTR: It’s very interesting that this profession sets all kinds of boxes up and bars that you must achieve to fit one definition of what they like to believe success looks like when it can take many forms. Can’t it?
DDS: Life has moved on because the general counsel community is stronger now and larger. You do feel it’s a more balanced kind of market, I think, than it was even 10 years ago where you had the primarily private practice partnership model. Too many exceptions, arrangements, requirements, and hassle. I think it’s a bit better now. But at the time, especially when we did research into who the moms were, and what they felt was stopping them from working more, etc., often distance was the issue — the need to raise families in greener areas outside of London, for example. Long commutes, expensive childcare — it was just wearing them down and often not worth the money.
The First 100 Years and Beyond
VTR: Yes. If you look back at the time more than 10 years ago, when you created Obelisk, it was a whole different environment. Not many people were working with the level of flexibility they have now. We’ve seen many changes during the past 10 years, and beyond. Which brings me to your other initiative, which really intrigues me. The First 100 Years project, where you’ve sought to influence and look at women in the profession over the last 100 years. What simulated your interest in looking back, starting in 1919, in order to track the journey that women have had in the legal profession?
DDS: I was preoccupied by the fact that I felt there was an ease with which we’re disconnected as women from a profession we worked really hard to gain access to, that I didn’t see with men. You know, this kind of sense that you don’t belong at the end of the day? That you’re easily discarded and it’s not your place. At the back of my mind I felt that, maybe through my few years of practice, that “partnership” wasn’t for us. It’s true, at least none of the women that I started with are partners at the firm we trained, and we’re talking 15 years ago, not 100 years ago.
Out of 120 people that started with me, the women didn't make it [to partner]. I was right in sensing that somehow the path laid for me was different and maybe wasn’t leading in the right direction. That’s why I left — why should I queue up? I decided to go and set up my own business and control my own fate. I thought, maybe I’ll make it or maybe I’ll fail, but at least I’m in control of my future. There was something that I felt internally that I didn’t have an outlet for, but I was sensing that maybe women were leaving because they didn’t feel welcome, and I wondered, “What’s causing this?”
I came across this photograph that showed — my daughter counted the men — 51 men and one woman. I thought, that was 1982. If that was the demographic and there was only one woman, how long did it take them to even get to one woman? And then I realized this law was in place that basically said women weren’t people. Women couldn’t become members of any profession that had a statute that could basically discriminate [against them]. That got me thinking and researching, and things started coming together, around March 2014.
I thought, if nobody is going to make a big song and dance of this, it’s going to be unnoticed, and we mustn’t let it go unnoticed — it’s a centenary and a massive landmark. That’s why I started pouring thousands of hours of my spare time into it.
VTR: I guess the journalist in you made you forge ahead and be so inquisitive.
DDS: Yeah, I guess it’s the combination of skills I gathered with my degree and legal education, as well as a very supportive husband who sometimes researched for me as he was still practicing. I felt this sense that this was way bigger than myself, and it had to be bigger than all of us because it was about all of us together — the past, present, and future. I believed that if women had this sense of history, and they can place themselves in it, then maybe they won’t disengage anymore. They’ll feel like they belong. That they’re a part of a legacy that they continue to push forward.
That's what motivated me. I didn’t think it would be as big as it became. Obviously, I hoped that it would be catching, and that people would love it and we’d tell the story in a nice way. But you can never tell, especially when you're quite junior, working from outside, and don’t have a big organization behind you with marketing budgets, etc. Obelisk was basically the founding financial partner because I decided that the marketing budget was going to this project. And the board said, “This would detract from the core business.” To which I said, “I think it’s very important for the sector.” I overruled them, which didn’t go down so well at the time. But I felt that it was an important thing, and somebody had to do it, and we needed to put our money where our mouth was.