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Breaking the glass ceiling: Indian-origin woman is the first non-white judge at Old Bailey

Dhir was once told to take up a career in hairdressing, and had to break down personal and social barriers to make her way in the judiciary, a profession dominated by white, public school-educated men.

world Updated: Apr 08, 2017 20:00 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Dhir was called to the bar in 1989 and was made a Queen’s Counsel in 2010.
Dhir was called to the bar in 1989 and was made a Queen’s Counsel in 2010.(Screengrab)

Anuja Ravindra Dhir, who was once told by her school teacher to lower aspirations and try hairdressing as a vocation, has taken over as the first non-white circuit judge at the Old Bailey, the central criminal court of England and Wales.

Daughter of Ravindra Dhir, an expert in concrete technology, Dhir hails from Scotland, where she studied law at the University of Dundee and battled stereotypes over the years to advance her legal career. She was once stopped outside a court by security.

There have been several Indian-origin judges at various courts in the United Kingdom, but Dhir, 49, is the first and currently the youngest at the Old Bailey, where some of the most high-profile cases are tried. She was called to the bar in 1989 and was made a Queen’s Counsel in 2010.

Dhir said in an interview to Press Association that she never expected to be treated like her “white Oxbridge male” counterparts when she was called to the bar, and recalled that she was once forced to produce her wig and gown just to convince security to let her through the court gates.

“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. So expectations have changed,” she said in the interview released on Saturday.

Recalling her school days, Dhir said she was steered towards a career in hairdressing when she told her teacher she wanted to go to university. 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’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,” Dhir added.