Withington in the City, 30 March

Sarah Smith and Laura Carstensen, pictured with Headmistress Janet Pickering and Development Director Clare FlynnOur first ‘Audience with….’ style event for Alumnae, Withington in the City, was held on Tuesday 30th March 2010 at the City of London School for Girls, at the Barbican in London, and proved a great hit with everyone who came. At the event, over 30 Alumnae and their guests enjoyed a drinks and canapé reception before Sarah Smith (née Christiansen, 1986 Year Leaver) and Laura Carstensen (née McRoberts, 1979 Year Leaver) spoke informally and engagingly about their diverse and interesting careers in Law and reminisced about the ‘life lessons’ learnt during their time at Withington and after.

Alumnae travelled from across London and beyond to attend, with inclement weather and tube delays proving no deterrent. As Alumnae from the fifties right through to the ‘noughties’ arrived, the sounds of shared laughter soon filled the room as those gathered chatted over wine and nibbles, reminisced about School life and caught up on more recent endeavours.

After a formal welcome from both Mrs Janet Pickering, Headmistress, and Clare Flynn, Development Director, our two speakers kept their captive audience engaged and amused with their reflections on life at Withington and the lessons learnt whilst there, and on the challenges they have faced as women working in their competitive fields.

Our first speaker, Laura Carstensen, reflected on how she felt her gender had affected her studies and career. Speaking as a Direct Grant pupil, Laura spoke first to Alumnae of her wholehearted support of Withington’s 100 Plus Bursary Appeal, and of the equality of opportunity she felt the Bursary scheme offered to pupils.

Laura spoke about her time at Withington, and how her non-conformity as a “part time punk” at weekends was encouraged, before relating to Alumnae an anecdote that whilst at St Hilda’s College, Oxford she was encouraged to learn to “touch-type” in order to enter the Law profession. This served as a reminder of the limitations to access for women which existed as little as 25 years ago. Her refusal in fact to learn to type however did not hamper her in any way, as Laura went on to spend over twenty years working in the City specialising in UK and EU competition law at Slaughter & May, becoming a partner aged just thirty-three.

Working 60-80 hour weeks it was clear that Laura had “loved every minute” of her time spent there. Laura credited WGS, a “fine feminist School”, with her refusal to accept any such limitations placed on her because of her gender, and she balanced her work in the City with a busy home life as the mother of six children. Laura described her decision to leave the City in 2004 to pursue other interests, and discussed her move to Wales and subsequent co-founding of two online businesses, which she continues to direct. Laura kept us all amused with anecdotes of balancing her idyllic country lifestyle at her 70 acre organic smallholding, where she is now mostly self-sufficient with plans to host a festival this summer; with her “sensible” London life where as well as serving on the Competition Commission, she is also a non executive board member of the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel (Cabinet Office).

Our second speaker of the evening, Sarah Smith, was no less engaging, and as one of the youngest female judges ever appointed kept her audience rather appropriately in ‘order’ throughout. Sarah, who enjoyed a successful career in the City in commercial litigation before picking up her gavel, gave Alumnae a brief resume of her journey from Wellington Road to the Square Mile and beyond, relating how the life-skills developed during her time at Withington have helped in her career.

Sarah reminisced about the lessons learnt whilst at WGS, with many Alumnae laughing in recognition at her memories of the teaching styles of some of former teachers. She described how Mrs Carrier endowed her with the ability to make a strong argument; how she learnt from Miss Boucher the importance of “always getting the facts straight”; and how Miss Parsons taught her charges teamwork and the will to win on the muddy playing fields of Withington. These lessons, along with the sub-conscious skills of self-confidence, respect, leadership and empathy which she felt were also disseminated at Withington, have stood Sarah in good stead during her career ever since.

Sarah went on to speak about her work as a part-time civil district judge in a county court. She sees a wide spectrum of cases on her docket, ranging from divorce and personal injury cases, to those relating to housing and commercial partnerships, and often challenges the expectations of those appearing in front of her of what a judge should look like. Sarah amused those gathered with an anecdote of one particular occasion where she was told by the petitioner that she was “not old enough” to be a judge, and with her description of the lengths she had to go to to convince him that she was!

As part of her role, Sarah also has to try and offer support to those who choose mostly for financial reasons to represent themselves in court, by helping to create a level playing field upon which justice can be served. In her closing words to Alumnae, Sarah credited the skills she learnt during her time at Withington with giving her the ability to deal with the huge variety of individuals who appear in her court on a daily basis.

Mrs Pickering then concluded the ‘Audience with’ Laura and Sarah, by thanking them for sparing the time to speak and by talking of those same life skills which are still developed in current pupils. Guests then continued to eat, drink and chat a while longer before saying their farewells. As Alumnae began to take their leave, and headed into the rainy London evening, many commented on what an enjoyable evening they had had, and on the friendly and welcoming atmosphere.