Dana: I was an employment lawyer, which is all about people. When you work in a law firm, you’re very aware of the fact that people are a massive cost. People drive the whole organisation. It’s a people business. Yes, you have clients, but if you don’t deliver through people that you hire, then the law firm doesn’t work. As an employment lawyer, you become aware of the role of people in any business. Sadly, when you’re an employment lawyer, it’s always when the match is no longer working! Throughout my career, from starting out in journalism, to practising law, I’ve always worked around people. So, looking at how to maximise bringing opportunities to people is not so unusual for me. It was always about employment law, people and working.

It’s a difficult question, it depends on the individual. When I was a lawyer, I was interested in the role law played in managing a business, and how law fit into the business problem, and in terms of my experience in the legal profession, I was interested in how law enables an organisation to achieve things as a business. When you have that curiosity about what makes a business better run, what makes legal more relevant, then you’re only one step away from tech, because tech is an enabler too. It’s not the answer to everything, it’s just a way of getting the things you want done, faster or more consistently. I guess it helped me because I was curious about how business is run, so I always ask myself ‘how can I be relevant as a lawyer, as a technologist, as a leader?’.

Well, I’m a geek basically! I always have the latest gadgets and I love all that tech stuff, except for Airpods, which I hate on purely aesthetic grounds! I remember that, even as a child, I was always playing some sort of computer game, so I always had an interest in technology, but didn’t think of it in terms of needing to be a computer scientist. I never excluded things that I could learn from, and technology was an area that I could learn from, particularly as I like stuff that can be applied. My father was an inventor and mechanical engineer, so he could take a tool and transform it into something else. Growing up with that type of mindset, I developed a problem-solving approach to make things work better. I was good at maths and physics at school and everyone assumed I would take a scientific path but I decided to be a journalist, which came as shock to them!

My company is built on gender diversity but in a positive discrimination way where we have a lot of women and too few men. It started with 100% women, and now it’s little more balanced, with around 30% men. I was always proud that the business never looked like the legal profession because it was always much more diverse than you would find in a law firm. This applied across gender, race etc. It was a very rich collection of people and experiences which you don’t normally get in training. When I was training, you could count diverse trainees on both hands and there was only one of each kind – I was the sole Eastern European, and there was one black and one Asian trainee out of 150 people. When I started my business, one of the things I used to find exciting was our ‘lunch and learn’ parties with the lawyers on our platform, where people would bring in home-cooked food from around the world. You cannot imagine the ideas and food we got to try, and it was so much fun to have those experiences! So, diversity is in the DNA of my business, because it’s always been something I cared about.

How does it look in the profession? I think everyone knows it’s not great at the highest level. There’s a big difference between the number of women coming in and the women rising through the ranks, the pay disparity and all the other issues facing female lawyers. Women have less of an issue getting into the legal profession, compared to other minorities, so I think intersectionality is a big issue. It’s not good enough to just have lots of white women from nice schools. If the women are all the same, it still ends up being a very homogenous workplace. It needs to be diverse in the widest possible sense. I think there’s an issue with access to the legal profession for certain communities and for people that don’t come from traditional backgrounds, that the organisation understands. They don’t go to recruit far and wide enough. Then at the very top, there is massive female attrition, so you have a double-ended challenge. How do you diversify the bottom? How do push for leadership roles for women? Then, how do you transform the culture to enable the new entrants to aspire to go all the way? It’s not an easy challenge, but I think if we separate the two ends, we can tackle them because they’re different problems with different solutions.

In a historic context, I think there have been great advancements. A hundred years ago, there were no women lawyers, to now having 50% female lawyers. But you can’t help but wonder why every change takes so many years. We don’t want to wait so long for the next change, so we need to do something about it.

Q. As you’ve mentioned the historic context, I’d like to ask you about the First 100 Years Project which you founded. As you say, it’s fascinating to see how the gender diversity in law has evolved over time. What would you say has been the project’s greatest impact?

I’m obviously subjective, but the impact has been that it has achieved what I wanted it to achieve, which was to create a foundation for the whole debate. When I started as an entrepreneur ten years ago, whenever I spoke about gender specific issues such as losing talent, rethinking how people work, allowing people to work from home, people in the legal profession were uninterested and bored. The attitude was very much that we were a bunch of moaning women. I felt strongly that we needed to change the tone of the conversation because women were being seen as the problem and therefore, not getting anywhere. For me, stepping back into the history allowed us to focus on the progress over a period of time and contextualise some of the big thorny issues of modern society. It allowed us to compare that progress in a much richer context.

The project started out very much as an experiment because it was impossible to predict how it would evolve. For example, I didn’t know that women were not permitted to be lawyers until 1919, and I was a lawyer! I asked around among friends and colleagues to gauge if people knew which year women were finally allowed to be lawyers and their guesses ranged from the 1700s to 1971! I realised that ignorance wasn’t helping the cause. We needed the information to be able to shape what we ask for. So I think we had a huge impact in reframing the discussion, but also by focusing on role models, on celebration, on education and on inspiring others. In today’s climate, with the plethora of women in law awards, it might seem that it’s the norm to celebrate female achievement, but when we launched the project in March 2014, the idea of having female role models was a completely new idea. It’s almost hard to imagine those days now, when female celebration is much more common, but that was our impact – we shifted the conversation to create this environment where we now celebrate women, which is fantastic. I think we created a new narrative for the space. Maybe I’m biased, but our impact report speaks for itself.

I tackled the project using different multimedia because I thought everybody hears things in their own way, through different channels and we reach more people that way. Even from my point of view, the project overachieved. We set out to do 100 films, which was my initial ambition, and then we just went on to do a million more things! We definitely got carried away with the excitement of what we could do, but I think it’s changed how we feel about the issue as well.

Q. Moving forward, how do you see these gender issues being resolved over the next 100 years?

As you’ve probably realised from my general direction in life, I think it’s fair to say that I don’t like to follow the crowd! I think that greater female visibility and celebration is a good thing, so I’m happy to see the accelerating change on that front. We intend to continue the work around things that we’ve realised women need more of.

For example, we started an annual lecture to create a platform for women to show what they’re capable of in terms of their thought, because very often the discussion is focused on women discussing their role as women, rather than talking about their expertise. The annual lecture is to allow women to display their brilliant minds on a universal topic, a little bit like a TED talk. I got annoyed that the Reith lectures featured 72 men and only 7 women and I felt like we would never catch up. Delivering a lecture requires different skills and gives you a certain gravitas. If you want to be a recognised leader, these types of lectures can make your reputation in your given field. Women generally don’t get those breaks, so we created a stage where womens’ brilliant minds can be on display. We have an annual theme and last year’s theme was ‘Freedom’. We set the theme at the start of last year in recognition of the political landscape, particularly in light of the American elections, but then freedom became the topic because we were all locked in! So the theme took on a whole new and unexpected meaning, but, although we generally take our freedom for granted, it was such a nuanced topic. We have a new topic for this year’s lecture, which will be announced shortly and will take place around November/December. Our aim was to create something reputable and desirable, that future leaders could use a platform, by showing what they’re made of intellectually and not just because they’re women.

We also wanted to create a series of films featuring women leaders from different backgrounds, spotlighting intersectionality. We’re starting with 30/40 films in different categories, called ‘The Next 100 voices.’ We’re also releasing a book called ‘In her words’. It’s drawn from our last photography day in March last year just before International Women’s Day. We photographed 1500 women from 23 locations around the world and we’ve created a book about how their view of the future has been challenged by the pandemic. It started out being called ‘Face the Future’ and looking at positive changes for women, but then the pandemic struck and suddenly women seemed to get the hardest deal! So, we asked them to reflect on that moment of looking forward, being excited and how the world has changed for them.

Dana will be speaking at our Celebrating Women Leaders in Tech Law Event on 8th March. To attend, please sign up for a free ticket here.