Denise Stephenson shared her journey from growing up on a council estate in Harlesden to becoming a partner in a law firm during a live chat to celebrate International Women’s Day. Under the title ‘Overcoming Despite the Odds’, she shared her story in an online video chat.
Denise worked for Sharpe Pritchard Solicitors for 14 years and has also been employed in planning and legal teams at Royal Mail’s Legal and Compliance Team, Camden and Westminster Councils and at RadcliffesLeBrasseur LLP.
She told how her headteacher at school encouraged her to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer, but the route to law for Denise was a ‘painful process”, where she encountered bullying and racism.
She said: “If you’re from a lower socio-economic background and/or a black woman you will come across a lot of adversity and barriers, so you’re going to have to dig in and find your resilience.”
Denise recalled how on one occasion, whilst she was a partner, a colleague tugged her braided hair extensions and asked if it was rope, and at another time, during a training session of Commissioners, one of the attendees openly asked whether she was a tea lady.
She said: “What happened to me really highlighted the problems that exist within law firms and barristers’ chambers, where they recruit people who are reflective of them, and I just think ‘How is this right?’”
Her experience prompted her to launch her own charity ROK (Reach Out 2 Kids) to support and encourage children and young people from BAME and low-income families, in their career aspirations.
Denise said: “There is a volume of talent out there and companies are missing them, which is part of the reason I set up ROK. I don’t want young people to have to go through the pain I and many people like me, went through just because of where they come from.”
She recalled how when she first attended planning inquiries (equivalent of court proceedings) she was almost always the only black person in the room and while much had changed, there is still a long way to go.
“We have to keep pushing and challenging the order of things and keep standing firm and saying I’m here and I’m not going anywhere,” she said.
Denise concluded by referring to this year’s International Women’s Day theme of Choose to Challenge and urged students to challenge the status quo. She asked them to question why there are not more women in the boardroom and why children from black and low-income families do not get the same opportunities as many of their white peers.
She said: “We can make such a difference, each and every one of us, both men and women, but I think as women we need to be encouraged to do that and have the strength and character to do that, by tapping into our inner selves and believing who we are and what we can do.