International Women’s Day Spotlight, Head of Legal

For International Women’s Day this year we’re talking to some of the Wagestream Women about what it means to them and their experiences in their different fields of work.

Hi Deepa, What’s your role here at Wagestream and where were you previously?

I’m Head of Legal here at Wagestream. Prior to this I’ve worked in lots of different legal settings including the Bar, in intellectual property, and at the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

I was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka and grew up there. I moved to the UK when I was 19 and have also lived in the Netherlands since.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

To me, it is a day of celebration, reflection and protest. Equality is a global issue although the agenda differs from country to country and between different groups. Even though we should celebrate the progress we have already achieved, I think we need to reflect on whether this progress has benefited all women equally. We must strive for a world in which the mainstream feminist agenda is broadened to include all women irrespective of race, sexual orientation, class and immigration status. It is only then the real work, the work which will benefit and give a voice to every woman, can begin.

What does this year’s theme, ‘#eachforequal’ mean to you?

This year’s theme focuses on the collective individualism of women. This acknowledgement that all women are, in fact, not the same but this individualism only fuels our work as a collective adds immense value to the international movement for women’s rights.

Now let’s talk about a little about you. Why did you choose to become a lawyer?

I decided to qualify as a lawyer because of my interest in international law and civic engagement.  International law is the law enshrined in treaties, conventions and standards. It impacts your everyday life and many issues such as trade, human rights, immigration, peace and security both at a national and international level. I was fascinated by this and wanted to learn how governments and international organisations worked together to implement and enforce these laws. 

I qualified initially at the Bar, studied and worked in the Netherlands for a few years and spent the majority of my career so far in international arbitration.  

What was it like working as Assistant Legal Counsel at the Hague?

It was truly a career highlight. I received a scholarship to work at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the Hague. The PCA is housed, together with the International Court of Justice, in the Peace Palace. And yes, it is literally a Palace!  For me, the most special aspect of working at the PCA was that many disputes are between states. The PCA plays such a unique role in international diplomacy in this regard. Arbitration provides parties with a lot of flexibility (such as deciding how fast they want a decision) so governments can resolve different problems with a custom-built approach in a neutral venue.

What is the importance of representation and mentorship? How have you built a professional network?

Having visible role models in government and organisations is important, especially in male-dominated professions. In fact, Sri Lanka had the world’s first female Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike and I had the opportunity to meet her as a young child. This visibility changes not only the way you see yourself but also what is possible for you in this world. 

Deepa meeting Sirimavo Bandaranaike as a young girl.

Finding mentors in general can be challenging as much of it can unfortunately involve perception. This can be especially hard if you don’t fit the mainstream profile of “destined for success” and you are early in your career when you don’t have work experience yet.

So a lot of it will depend on your own tenacity and ability to build the right professional networks and keeping an open mind. Sometimes, you can find mentors in the most unexpected ways and places and they can enrich your career immensely. Having said that, it is always worth giving structured mentorship programmes a go. For example, Gray’s Inn ran a mentorship scheme which I signed up for as a budding lawyer and this proved to be very useful.

How can larger organisations make sure proper mentoring for women is taking place?

Given that men still dominate the senior level of many industries, their engagement and mentoring of women is important. However, in order to have successful mentoring relationships, organisations should implement appropriate diversity and awareness building including unconscious bias training. This will ensure people can have open conversations about diversity and abate old-fashioned views which still pervade many workplaces.

A zero tolerance policy has to be actioned to ensure a safe environment for successful mentoring. This will also make sure that the mentors who are available internally are the right role models. 

What’s the most important advice you’d give to a woman thinking of starting a career in law?

I think it would be three pieces of advice.

  1. Choose your mentors and connections (in your firm/chambers or outside) wisely. They need to be a safe space for honest counsel so think before you choose.
  2. Think out of the box for work experience. You can apply for scholarships, grants, roles abroad, non-law roles which help you discover your passions, expand your network and take you to new countries. Living in a place where the culture, language and people are different to your own, so early in your career, will help you grow personally and professionally.
  3. And this one is for when you are in practice one day. Never be afraid to speak your mind irrespective of who is on the other side of the table.