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Podcast Episode 07: Women in Tech Law with Sonia Cissé

CJ: Hello and welcome to the Feminist Law Podcast. I’m your co-host Courtney Jones.


CT: And I’m your co-host Clara Topiol. We’re both co-founders of the Feminist Law Project and final year law students who are very passionate about feminism and law. Today on the podcast we have Sonia Cisse, a partner in Linklaters’ Technology, Media and Telecommunications practice. Would you please introduce yourself?


SC: Hi everone, yes so like you said, my name is Sonia Cisse, I am a Tech and Privacy Partner like I like to call myself. I say privacy because I usually advise my clients on everything related to the use of new technologies, IT agreements, commercial agreeements, data protection, data governance, telecommunications as well.


CT: Thank you for joining us today and congratulations on your promotion to Partner.


SC: Thank you.


CT: So what made you want to pursue a career in law, and business law more specifically?


SC: Initially, to be honest, I wanted to be a history teacher so I landed quite far from my initial goal but yes, to be honest, I think that it came from my father. He really encouraged me to pursue a career in law. He didn’t have business law speciifclaly in mind, he saw me more in public law but I don’t know why, I just felt from the beginning that business law would be more for me. I was right since I have absolutely no regrets and wouldn’t have chosen anything else.


CJ: Yes, that’s such an interesting jump from wanting to be a history teacher to pursuing a career in business law. So, could you tell us a bit more about what it’s like being a woman in business law today? SC: Yes. Well, first, it’s normal. I think it’s important to know that because there are many women in business law today, in particular among junior associates and middle associates. Where we see a little bit, less is maybe as partners in business law but it’s changing. It’s perfectly normal and we are many and we do great.


CT: Thank you for that insight. So more generally speaking, do you think that sexism still exists as a barrier for women hoping to pursue a career in business and in particular in the technology sector?


SC: Yes, unfortunately sexism exists, sexism is real. To focus on a more positive side of things, more organisations and in particular law firms, are more and more aware of that fact and that it might be for many reasons more difficult and women face more challenges in their careers than men. So, even though we obviously have not got rid of sexism, there are initiatives and programmes in place in order to balance the playing field a little bit more. Importantly as well, it’s something that we should address more often is that there is external sexism but there is as well internal sexism where women do not refrain from starting a career in business and in particular, in the tech sector because they think that maybe it’s not for them on the basis that maybe women would be or could be not as gifted in tech as men or maybe they would not dare applying for certain jobs because they don’t see themselves, succeeding in that role and so what I really appreciate is that even though, once again sexism exists but I can see actions being taken by organisations everywhere all over the world in order to make sure that the best talents have access to the best roles suitable for them regardless of gender.


CJ: Yes, it’s interesting that you mention that because we often talk about the external barriers, the external sexism that women face but not so much the internal mental barriers, thinking yourself that maybe you’re not capable of it when we really are. You also mention a bit about different practices and procedures that different organisations can put in place to fix this problem. So, expanding on that a little bit, what do you think that law firms can do to ensure a more inclusive working environment for women?


SC: First, I think that the working environment, at least at the moment, is quite inclusive. We can always do better but the situation is better than when I started my career 12 years ago. I think that the first thing, or at least that is important to me, is projection. So, it would be easier for young associates or middle associates even to fancy themselves as having a long and successful career in a law firm when they can see that they have partners, female partners, that actually look like them, act like them. Because sometimes, we have this terrible image of the female partner acting, I don’t like saying that but, like a man and being very distant, very successful but unbearable, do not say hello to their associates, is very cold, etc… you still have this fantasy that exists however I thik that the more women parner and the more diversity in women we have acting as partners in a firm, the more the junior associates and middle associates, the younger generation, will also see themselves as having such a career. So projection is one thing. I also think that you need at least to understand that women and men act differently, think differently; it doesn’t mean that one is better than the other but it means that they are different so there are many programs in place, and I speak for my firm Linklaters. They have already implemented several programmes that are very successful, they are great programmes. For example, we have the Stepping Forward programme where we take talented female associates at A2 level (between 2-4 years, 3-5 years PQE) and we take those talented associates from all over the world and they follow a nine-month programme where they have coaching, mentors through senior partners or a counsel and they just go through that training and for nine months they are followed and they have several sessions. They are also put in contact so that they can communicate more between themselves and support each other. We have this programme and we have another one which is a Women Leadership Programme for more senior associates, still female associates, and it’s quite similar to the Stepping Forward Programme but is more intensive and maybe, beause they are more senior, even more concrete with the support for them to achieve more senior roles such as partners. Those two rpogrammes are just amazing and I’ve been through the Women Leadership Prorgamme myself so I’m speaking the truth or at least you can believe me when I say they’re amazing and really help. They help to undertand the mechanism of law firms, what is expected of you from the point of view of the firm but also from a business eprpsecitve, from a marketing perspective, from a management perspective… It’s a great programme, it’s very complete and we only have very positive feedback from the associates that follow the progrmmes. Many of them become partner within the firm but others decide to move in-house and they remain very fit for that programme because it’s not just about making female partner at Linklaters but also about being the best version of yourself as a female professional.


CT: Thank you, it’s great to hear that Linklaters has such amazing initiatives in place and hopefully other law firms do as well to make sure that women are as included as possible. Moving on from that, I’d like to talk about the impacts of technology on women now and specifically in terms of how women can be left out of new technologies. So, do you think that in the creation of new technologies, the absence of women’s voices can be a concern?


SC: Absolutely, I think that the absence of everybody’s voices can or should be a concern. Technologies are going to play a more important role and the more years pass, the more important they are. It actually scares me that society does not yet understand that if for a reason development of technology only relies within the hands of small groups, the rest of the world will be left behind or left out. Women play a major role in that field, and I think that, to come back to your question, I think it is a concern. We lack female ingenior, data scientist, website developer, whatever it is… female tech lawyers. We lack them, we need more. We want technology that actually works in the society we live in, that fits the society we live in and serves the society we live in. Therefore, we need women for that. That’s it.


CJ: Yes, thank you for that. Expanding on that a little bit, how do you think new technologies and new tech laws could have different impacts on men vs women?


SC: It’s a good question. I had this conversation with a data scientist and I think that sometimes, just giving you an example of the consequences when you lack women, at least in the project you decide to build is important. So, I was having this conversation with this data scientist, and she was telling me that she worked on this project, it was supposed to be an Artificial Intelligence (AI) that supposedly was capable of predicting your future. She was using the data, public data or random data, I think it was a big data project. She was using at least a set of data and after a while, she noticed that the AI that she created was predicting a bright and very successful professional future to her male colleagues, whereas for her, the tool of the technology was only predicting things related to you will get married, you will have kids, you will have a big house… this type of ambitions. For men, it was always about their career. She realised that she had actualy used a set of data that was focusing on female as not being professionals or at least the data was biased. Therefore, she was not seen as a professional; there was absolutely no mention of her career but only her family, marriage, etc… She told me, gosh, I actually discriminated myself. It was a really interesting conversation and I thought, what if she had not been a woman? If she had not been a very ambitious woman? Maybe for men, using the same set of data and setting this AI, they would have a great career. They might not have the same reaction and they might not decide to just reorientate the project or use another set of data or to take full acknowledgement and conscience that the data is biased or that the AI, the algorithm, something was wrong. That’s why we need a seat at the table as women in tech because unfortunately, that’s just the way it is. It is easier for a group to be sensitive to the struggles, to your own challenges and struggles whereas for an external group, you can do a lot of training, but it might not be the same. That’s why we need everybody, not just women, we need minorities, we need people from various religions, we need people from various sexual orientations… we need everybody, the more diverse the better, working in tech in order to make sure that in the future years, the technology that will be used by everybody in the world take into consideration everybody.


CT: That makes a very good point, thank you. So, in terms of looking to the future, what do you think can be done to minimise the differences between how new technologies can impact men and women’s lives differently or perhaps mitigate the change in negative effects that these technologies can have on these women’s lives?


SC: Like I said, I think the first thing is to make sure that in your project team, you have men and women and that you give them a similar role because unfortunately sometimes organisations have women doing the lower tasks and men doing running the project. You also need, starting from the beginning, to train women. Sometimes, organisations would be very happy with having women but there are none on the market because in schools already, the system is working hard in letting them know that they should not go there, not work in tech and I didn’t mention it when I introduced myself but I’m also a member of Women in AI because I think that it’s very important that there are associations like that one to show the way and demonstrate that women are valued in anything related to AI or any other tech project. But it starts from the beginning. And so, when raising girls, don’t tell them that they should not pursue a career in mathematics or in tech; when raising boys, don’t tell them that they are expected to be better than women in tech or in mathematics. I think we should just let people be what they want to be, let them do what they want to do and at least, acknowledge from the beginning that they are biased in this society and that we are wasting the best talent because we put people in boxes and then are left without resources when we most need them.


CJ: You’re absolutely right, putting people into boxes can prevent them from becoming the best versions of themselves and from pursuing careers in things that they may have loved but never consider because of those boxes. Speaking from a more legal perspective I suppose, if you could put in place a framework to ensure that men and women’s voices are heard equally when creating new technology or putting a place new legal frameworks to regulate these technologies, how would you do that? What do you think that new framework should look like?


SC: It’s a very hard question because i know that whenever you talk about quotas, people mention merit and I think that we should have the chances and what about men etc… But the truth is that you need at least, if I had a magic wand and I could put in place a framework, I would actually put quotas in place. if you have 5 developers working on a tech project, make sure that 2 of them are women. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it should be. Because otherwise, you will have just one way of thinking. I’m not saying that men are all the same but you will have just the main perspective of things when you need women’s perspective on everything as well. i would start with that or if you cannot build such a team, maybe you should put measures in place to ensure that your project, your tools, your applications, whatever they are, are checked at one time by a more diverse committee. Yeah, maybe that would be one thing: to have a diversity committee within each organisation in the tech sector, that could work.


CT: I think the diversity committee does make a lot of sense and will probably help regulate these technologies and make sure that everyone is included as much as can be. So, for any listeners listening to this episode today, what advice would you give them and especially women about building a career in tech law?


SC: My advice would be, and that’s the advice I give on a regular basis to anyone who comes to me, go for it! Don’t ask yourself so many questions. Go for it. If you want to do it, just do it. I’m no going to say it’s going to be easy, nothing is easy, you will face challenges that you could not even anticipate. You will face comments, you will face sexism like we discussed, you might have to face discrimination, exclusion, you name it, you will face it. But it is worth it so go for it! There is one thing that I think is important for women coming back to internal sexism is that the world will not change or will not see you in a different way if you do not do it yourself first. If you see yourself in tech, please don’t refrain yourself for any reason, legitimate or not. Just go for it and you’ll be able to figure it out because we are as capable as anybody else, as any other men. That would be my advice: just go for it.


CJ: Thank you so much, that was really good advice and we just want to thank you for coming on our podcast today, we really appreciate it. We understand you are a partner and probably have a very busy schedule so thank you so much.


SC: No thank you for having me, thank you so much.


CJ: In today’s feminist news roundup, Indonesia is set to criminalise sex outside of marriage. Anyone who engages in sex outside of marriage in Indonesia whether they are a citizen or a visitor can face up to one year of imprisonment.


CT: Also in today’s news roundup, Cambridge dictionary has revised their definition of ‘woman’ and ‘man’. The definition has been altered inclusivity for those who self-identify as woman or man regardless of sex.


CJ: Finally, Stephen Bear, a reality TV star, has been found guilty of disposing private sexual photos and films with intent to cause distress after he published a film of him and a woman having sex on OnlyFans. The woman in the film has said that she was unaware at the time that she was being filmed.


CT: We hope you have enjoyed listening to the Feminist Law Podcast so far. This is our final episode before we break for the holidays. We will be back with more discussions on feminism and law on January 9th. Happy holidays!


CJ: If you have any suggestions for this podcast, let us know directly via email at contact@feministlaw.org.


CT: Please also visit our website at feministlaw.org and follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn to keep up to date with our latest articles, podcasts, newsletters, and exciting news.


CJ: The music for this podcast was sourced from pixabay.com.


CT: Thanks for listening!

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Transcribed by: Clara Topiol

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