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International Women’s Day 2022: Denise Gibson, Allen & Overy, Leading Individual – Acquisition Finance

Which woman most inspired you in your legal career and why?

I don’t think I could put it down to one single woman! There have been many. In more recent years, as I have been navigating my way as a more senior woman in the industry, I have been very inspired and supported by Karen Seward – the Global Head of Litigation at A&O. She faces the industry (and the world) with an authenticity that smacks you in the face. She has done much to raise the profiles and improve the experiences of those that come behind her and to call out anything and anyone that compromises the values that we aspire to as a firm.

And from afar – I developed a total girl crush on the late Lady Barbara Judge after seeing her speak at a book launch for “The Female Lead”. She was fierce! Totally inspiring, funny, unashamed and very much ahead of her times. I have read a number of her lessons… but I like the sentiment “Don’t get too hung about being a woman. Just be a woman.”

What advice do you now have for aspiring lawyers?

The first – be true to yourself. It sounds cheesy and trite but this profession requires a huge level of commitment and so if you are exerting emotional energy trying to bury who you are at work, you are unlikely to have enough capacity left to be truly exceptional. Plus it isn’t much fun and the industry is benefiting and will continue to benefit from more diverse practitioners in every sense of the world – so you are doing us all a favour by bringing your true self to work.

The second – be open to every opportunity – when doors open, walk through them! I can honestly say I haven’t spent much time in my career being “comfortable” cause once it gets too comfortable it probably means you are ready for the next adventure!

This year’s IWD theme is ‘#BreakTheBias’ on gender inequality, discrimination and stereotypes – how biased is the City commercial legal market these days and what is the biggest change that still needs to happen in your view?

I would like to say that there is no bias but the lack of female representation at the top of the profession tells its own story. There are no doubt outdated stereotypes that we need to address, but I am seeing real progress. The women are rising through the ranks, for example at A&O the 50% women we see at entry level is now true at senior associate level, something we would not have been able to say 5 years ago. I’m optimistic that these women will continue to rise to the most senior levels and change the face of the profession. To make this happen we need to continue to address bias wherever we see it. For me one of the most important biases we can address is around parenting. Our men are parents too and we need to ditch the old stereotypes of women as caregivers and men as breadwinners. Many firms (ours included) have policies that facilitate a sharing of the responsibilities and our practices are moving in the right direction, but there is still a way to go. I hope that by the time my daughters are starting out in their own careers, this bias will be a thing of the past.