Laura Carstensen, who had three kids in the first four years of career, speaks publicly about “structural sexism”
A former magic circle solicitor with six kids has spoken publicly at her relief to have quit the law aged 43, while expressing disappointment that the profession makes it so hard for senior women.
Impressively, Oxford-educated Laura Carstensen knocked out her half dozen-strong brood and still made partner at Slaughter and May. Yet in 2004, after ten years in the job, she abandoned the firm to start a new life running mail-order meditation equipment website Blue Banyan in rural north Wales.
Today, as the Lord Sumption sexism row and Charlotte Proudman feminism campaign shake the legal profession, Carstensen, 54, has raised her head again to speak publicly about her time as a City lawyer. And it makes for fascinating reading.
Speaking to The Lawyer Magazine (registration required), Carstensen explained the logic that saw her have three children in the first four years of her career and another hat-trick of kids after she became a partner:
The reason I did was to do with career structure,” she said. “I knew had a chance of partnership from four to seven PQE and that during that period I had to work flat out. So I knew I would have to children before that or after that. It sounds very calculating but the career structure is almost a form of structural sexism. It doesn’t need to be that way. It couldn’t have been worse designed and is a hangover from when there weren’t any women.
The solicitor turned meditation clobber guru gave an insight into just how tough it was to combine motherhood with City law — especially at the start of her career. She recalled:
Looking back I don’t know how I did it. You get used to low quality of life I suppose, used to very little sleep. I was a separated and pregnant mother of three when I was made partner. But then life got easier. I got the infrastructure I needed and I had a fantastic nanny for 15 years.
What was really interesting, though, was how desperate Carstensen was to leave the law — something which she says, in spite of all her success, “was never my long-term goal”. Indeed, Carstensen describes quitting Slaughter and May as her best ever career decision.
That is the decision I’m proudest of in my entire career,” she admits. “It wasn’t a hard decision but I did have six dependent children — it would have been easier to stay. Also, lots of people say they will do something like that and I did it with not a backwards look. It proved something to me: that my motivations in life are not money or prestige — if they were I would have stayed where I was.
These days Carstensen combines web entrepreneurship with various non-executive director roles and an impressive-sounding gig as a commissioner at the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Looking at her former career from afar, her big surprise is how little has changed in terms of opportunities for women at senior levels, despite over 50% of trainees being female for around two decades now. She reflects:
There were no female partners at Slaughters when I joined. The first woman to be made partner was Ruth Fox. When she was made partner I remember clearly thinking ‘Now it’s coming, things will change’. But they haven’t really. It is the 20% tolerance phenomenon. We built a narrative and thought we would have to wait a generation. We got traction but then it plateaued.
Carstensen isn’t the only female lawyer to have birthed multiple children while working in the City: Allen & Overy‘s Imogen Moss has five kids, while former Clifford Chance partner Elizabeth Knox has seven.