When she was growing up in Dundee, Anuja Ravindra Dhir told her teacher she wanted to go to university. Her teacher suggested she “aim lower” and try hairdressing instead.
Fortunately the Scottish schoolgirl ignored the advice and now she is the first non-white circuit judge, and the youngest, to sit at the Old Bailey.
I remember going to court and the man at the gate didn’t believe I was a barrister and I had to show him my wig and gown before they would let me inOld Bailey Judge Anuja Ravindra Dhir
In an interview, Judge Dhir said that forging her career as a barrister in the crown courts she regularly faced discrimination and learned never to expect to be treated like her “white Oxbridge male” counterparts.
On one occasion she was forced to produce her wig and gown just to convince security to let her through the gates.
Judge Dhir, 49, has spoken of “incredible” changes over the past 30 years. “My daughter, it would never cross her mind being treated differently because she’s a female or because she’s not white, whereas in my generation we did.
“We were surprised when people didn’t treat us differently. Not now, but when I came to the bar, I was not expecting to be treated like a white Oxbridge male at all.
“So expectations have changed. That’s a lot to be done over 30 years.”
Recalling her schooldays, Judge Dhir said: “I wasn’t the cleverest person in my year at school. I’m dyslexic so I find it difficult to read and write. And when I went to school in the 1970s in Scotland, women were not encouraged to aim high. When I first said to a teacher at school I wanted to go to university when I was older, she told me that I should aim a little lower and suggested I try hairdressing instead.”
She grew up expecting discrimination and had to break down personal and social barriers to make her way in a profession dominated by white, public school-educated men.
She said: “There are so few women from certain communities at the top of professions because, on the one hand, there were barriers for people who are different, but on the other hand, there were many communities who did not encourage females to study. I grew up expecting some form of discrimination. When I came to the bar most of the bar was male, white, public school and they had some connection already with the profession. Now that’s four differences already before we start.
“Added to that, most clients did not want a young Asian Scottish female representing them, so that made it harder for me to build a client base. I remember going to a crown court out of London and the security, the man at the gate, didn’t believe I was a barrister and in the end I had to show him my wig and gown before they would actually let me in to the building.
“And I got used to turning up at courts and people saying to me ‘Witness? – no – Defendant? – no’ and looking rather surprised when I said I was the advocate.
“I’m often asked if there is a glass ceiling. I think sometimes there are two ceilings – or no glass ceiling at all.
“There is one glass ceiling that’s in our minds, that’s what we think we can achieve so perhaps we impose our glass ceiling and that has happened to me several times.”
The Old Bailey houses 15 judges, of whom ten are men and five are women, including one who is due to start soon. Of the recent intake of Old Bailey judges, three out of six are women.