I’m very pleased to bring you a really inspirational interview with an outstanding lawyer, Camilla Palmer. I’m particularly pleased because Camilla represented my friend Miriam O’Reilly in her landmark case against which the BBC and won. But then Camilla is no stranger to winning. Together with Miriam, Camilla has set up the Women’s Equality Network to help women everywhere who are the victims of discrimination.
Camilla is described thus in the Chambers Legal Directory:
“Camilla Palmer is unanimously acclaimed as one of the UK’s best discrimination specialists, particularly in relation to female discrimination and maternity rights cases”
She’s a pretty amazing woman to have on your side.
The aims of the Women’s Equality Network are to provide women with a safe forum where they can share their experiences and give each other support and advice to help them resolve their dispute. It’s one of the very positive things to come out of Miriam’s stand against the BBC and is really making a huge impact on the lives of women.
Jane: Camilla, what prompted the idea for the Women’s Equality Network?
Camilla: Many women suffer bullying and discrimination at work and it is a stressful and lonely experience. Most clients do not want to go to tribunal and I know how difficult, stressful and expensive it is to bring a claim. I hope WEN will help women to achieve early resolution if possible and failing that support them going to a tribunal.
I have often put clients in a similar situation in touch with each other so they can provide mutual support. It was the support given to Miriam by so many other women that gave me the idea of setting up a website so women can support each other when they have work problems. Miriam has already supported lots of women, many of whom have said they could not have done it without her.
Can you describe a typical story/query that comes in via the network?
There are so many different types of query but one thing that stands out is the surprise and shock so many women feel when treated badly because of their gender or being pregnant or on maternity leave. Pregnancy/maternity related dismissal is a particularly common issue.
Camilla, you’ve had a distinguished career in the law and published several books. What were your career thoughts on leaving school? Did you have it all mapped out?
Oh No. My family had somewhat traditional views about the role of women. I left my very unacademic girl’s school with poor exam results; very few girls went to university from there. After lots of travelling, I worked as a secretary, moving swiftly between jobs, which I rarely found interesting or challenging, until I got a job as an adviser at Gingerbread, the one parent family organisation.
I decided that I needed more skills to be useful so went to LSE to do a law degree. I have always worked for or with NGOs, including law centres, Gingerbread, Maternity Action, Working Families. My interest and passion for equality started early and I wrote a slim book on sex and race discrimination in 1986 and many fatter books on discrimination and maternity rights since then.
I then started acting for employees, mainly in discrimination cases. In 2002 I set up my own firm (Palmer Wade) specialising in employment discrimination and in 2009 I moved to Leigh Day as Head of the Employment team where I continue to specialise in employment and discrimination. Most of my work is helping employees resolve their problems outside the tribunal system.
Having said that I am a determined and tough litigator where necessary – I hope Miriam would agree. Hopefully, WEN will help women negotiate themselves and, if they want, navigate their way through the tribunal system.
The law is a very traditional career and notoriously difficult for women to break into the cliques. Have you experienced discrimination in your career?
Low academic expectations of me as a girl made me determined to show people they were wrong. I was told I would find it difficult doing a law degree, but it wasn’t – to my relief. And, yes, I have experienced discrimination and even brought a claim.
Did pursuing your own claim have an effect on your career?
No, I never discussed it though it gave me insight into the process of what it is like litigating yourself – not much fun.
What advice would you give to a young woman thinking of entering the legal profession today?
Have the confidence that you will succeed and are as good if not better than your male colleagues, however confident they seem. Don’t give up if you have a family but try and get the support you need to work sensible, family friendly hours. I firmly believe that you can combine both but make sure your partner is going to share the caring – easier said than done…
And, of course, you don’t have to be young to be thinking of entering the legal profession! I was 30 when I qualified, though many start much later.
If you were given a free rein with the statute book what one law would you change or introduce to improve the lives of women?
I’d like to see an end to the glass ceiling, so that women are proportionately represented at all levels. I’d give employers 2 years to achieve this, failing which there should be a positive action obligation on them to ensure equal representation at the top.
I’d vote for you on that! What or who sustains you when the going gets tough?
My family and friends and having lots of interests as well as work.
What’s next for the Equalities Network? How do you see it developing over the next few years?
I hope that it will grow and we will find ways in which women can support other women in difficult situations. We are going to provide very practical advice for women including those bringing claims. It may also become a forum for campaigning on issues such as pregnancy discrimination and flexible working.
Kira Cochrane’s counting exercise was great. She counted the number of women presenters, interviewers, guest speakers, journalists on TV and in newspapers, and compared the number of men in similar roles. Surprise surprise there were far fewer women. We should all be counting the male/female ratio on boards, in senior positions in organisations, on panels and calling to account employers who do nothing to rectify inequalities, which are sadly still rife – nearly 40 years after the discrimination legislation came into force. Shocking. So much more needs to be done.
Thank you so much, Camilla. I am so glad (as are no doubt countless women whom you’ve helped) that you made that career switch. May you be successful for many more years. Or, as my Dad would have said, Lang may yer lum reek!
If you’d like to know more about the work of the Women’s Equality Network, or you or someone you know needs their support, you can click this link to go straight to their web page. You don’t have to put up with harassment and discrimination; there are people out there who will help and support you. If you’d like to talk it through first, drop me an email, or call my office, with no obligation at all and in total confidence.
Thinking of expanding your training business? I can help you. To find out more, click here.
Posted on July 24th, 2012 by Jane