In my fifth Women in Mediation interview, for International Women’s Day 2023 I am in conversation with Prof Suzanne Rab, a talented mediator and barrister working across similar sectors to me, including energy/environment and competition but also with an eclectic practice based on her individual strenghts. Suzanne’s story is inspiring in how she has faced adversity – both on a racial and sexual basis – but has not let that stand in her way and has persevered and found her niche and is “loving it”.
Women in Mediation is a series inspired by International Women’s Day where I interview successful women mediators on their journey in mediation. When I first thought of becoming a mediator, I was initially told that I could not be a successful commercial mediator unless I was male and middle-aged. At the time, this was pragmatic, well intentioned advice. In recording a video for International Women’s Day for We Are The City as one of their #ChooseToChallenge100 women, I chose not to focus on that story but instead use my mediation skills to help people learn HOW TO CHALLENGE – to empower them to challenge more (you can watch that video here ). It made me curious about other women’s stories in mediation and inspired me to begin a series on women in mediation. As part of that series I have interviewed a number of successful women mediators on the challenges of being a female commercial mediators and how to overcome them. Other women I have interviewed include: Jane Andrewartha, Rosemary Jackson QC, Samantha Lowe, Gillian Caroe, Laurence Krief and Jane Gunn.
The interviews are based around the following 5 questions – but they do tend to wander in other interesting directions too:
- Tell us about you and your practice?
- Tell us a bit about your journey in mediation as a woman?
- What advice do you have for other women in mediation?
- What are the struggles that women, in particular, face in commercial mediation?
- How have things changed and what still needs to change to make mediation more accessible to women?
You can listen to the podcast here or watch the video below
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In case you prefer to read instead of watching, the transcript of the interview is set out here:
Mia Forbes Pirie: Welcome to the Women in Mediation series of the CMCs podcast, mediation in Focus. Today we are fortunate enough to have Suzanne Rab with us, who’s gonna talk to us a little bit about her journey in mediation. I began this series because when I wanted to be a mediator, I was told that it wouldn’t work if I in commercial mediation if I wasn’t male and middle-aged. So a few years later, I decided to ignore that advice and become a commercial mediator. Anyway, we’re here today to hear about Suzanne’s journey, and I want to welcome you very warmly, Suzanne. She is one of the hot, hot 100 lawyers, and she has prra a practice in some really interesting areas, some that overlap with me, like competition and, and energy and environment, and many that go further afield, including in India and media. So we’re really excited to have you here today and to put out this podcast on International Women’s Day. So tell us a little bit about yourself and your practice, Suzanne.
Suzanne Rab: Yes, thank you. Thank you Mia, for the opportunity to, to share thoughts with you. So I am a barrister. I’ve been practicing in law for about 25 years now as a solicitor, then as an economist, and now as as counsel. My day job in terms of a barrister is focused on commercial regulatory topics. And my mediation practice though evolved less by design, more by evolution in the sense that I experienced good quality mediation and I began to realize the power of it and that not all disputes should end up in an adversarial forum. And that’s where it became an adjunct to what I did as a solicitor. And over the years has developed. So today I maintain an active mediation practice. I practice as an arbitrator, but also as as counsel. And I’d always thought that the practice areas that are core to my role as a barrister would attract work in the mediation space.
Primarily that has been true clients seeking subject matter expertise in disputes with a high finance or regulatory dimension to them. But what’s been really pleasant and quite liberating is the fact that I’ve had opportunities to work on disputes which have nothing to do with the subject matter that forms the mainstay of my commercial practice, whether it’s family law property law disputes, and disputes that really I would not encounter as as a barrister. And that has been certainly what, what clients have said, that my attributes as a mediator are the, the things that attracted them to want to, to use me. So disputes with a very high human interest dimension allows me to, to approach those, you know, without the baggage of some of the subject matter context that I have in, in other environments.
Mia Forbes Pirie: That’s fantastic. I love that. I love that you saw the benefit of mediation and sort of transitioned to include that I in in quite a broad practice, and then this difference between subject matter expertise, but also just the qualities that you bring. And I feel like we could have a whole conversation about that and maybe we should do that another time, but for another time.
Suzanne Rab: For another podcast.
Mia Forbes Pirie: Yes. But right now, I’d love to hear just a bit about your journey in mediation as a woman and how being a woman may have affected that or not.
Suzanne Rab: So at the outset you explained some of the challenges that you’d encountered with well-meaning individuals suggesting, or more forcefully suggesting, that maybe this wasn’t a sensible career path for a person who doesn’t correspond to perceived stereotypes. And I had a similar well-meaning advice in the context of my desire to become a barrister. This was in the nineties. For me, it was not just being female and being younger as a professional, but to quote, it was the suggestion that if you’re not white Anglo-Saxon and a man of privilege, which are other dimensions [Mia: mm-hmm. ,] that practice at the commercial bar was not viable. Now, I did heed that advice but you’ll see with the benefit of hindsight and history, I am here today and I am loving it and I embrace it and it’s right for me right now. And I really don’t think it’s a healthy exercise to think about regrets.
Should I have done this earlier? It’s the right thing for me to do now. But yeah, when it came to mediation because of the more by accident approach to this or more that the fact that it wasn’t part of a strategic plan other than realising benefits and thinking, what could I do next? It was more the fact that I could go through the journey as a mediator and incrementally build up a practice which was more demand-led in a sense of actually me going out looking for the work. Yeah. But I do think that some of the the points that you’ve shared about your own journey have some resonance and still do. And perhaps, if I can give an example, this is from a recent case involving social media, and I was amongst a shortlist of possibilities to mediate a dispute with a high social media context.
I’ve written extensively about artificial intelligence. I’ve got a big media practice. I’ve even got my own YouTube channel for what, what it’s worth. So it’s an area that I’ve got professional synergies with and also direct expertise in that area. I was not selected for this. My personality set may have been similar to the parties. Many of them said that they could resonate with me as an individual, but still I was not selected. The mediator who was selected was about two decades my senior, was male and needed to have said devices explained to them
Mia Forbes Pirie: mm-hmm. wow. Wow.
Suzanne Rab: That will just leave you with how could that possibly happen.
Mia Forbes Pirie: Wow.
Suzanne Rab: And these are some of the challenges that we, that we do still encounter that even though the process of selecting a mediator is ostensibly democratic, each side will put forward their list of proposed candidates who ends up selected in the end is inevitably a point of compromise. So those are, are just some of the things to think about. And that just made it very palpable to me that yes, we have progressed a long way since the early nineties when I was thinking about doing this, but we still, we still have things to do.
Mia Forbes Pirie: That’s such a powerful story. And you have sort of, you talked about age and gender or sex and, and skin color and privilege all being factors when you came to the bar and initially you made this transition which was demand-led. So, so it was gentle. But your your example of what happened in the social media case, it, it just strikes me so powerfully. And as you say, that we still have so much work to do and we see how far we’ve progressed and sometimes we think, “oh, oh, it’s, it’s, it’s not happening anymore. It, it’s changed”, but it, it really is happening. And, and I, I think that was just such a fantastic example. So bearing that in mind and bearing the journey you’ve been on, what advice do you have for other women in mediation?
Suzanne Rab: I think that if this is an area that is your passion, then really do, do go for it. And I think that, you know, many professionals, men and women ask me am I suited to mediation? Am I suited to trial litigation? What do I like to do? And, and I think that really is the key, which is answer what, what motivates you.
Mia Forbes Pirie: Mm-hmm.
Suzanne Rab: But certainly I have found that where I’ve been able to, to make advances has been where I don’t necessarily challenge stereotypes on their head, but offer something distinctive and different. And if people want that, they will consume it. And I think that that is it. That yes, you can have a chip on your shoulder about how hard it is, or you can actually demonstrate what what you can offer. And because in a mediation, parties have reached the point of absolute stalemate, they need a different type of energy. And I think that is key to harnessing the power of what you may offer distinctively as a man or as a woman.
Mia Forbes Pirie: So offer something distinctive and and then those people who want that will find you.
Suzanne Rab: Yes. And, and I’ve often asked clients, what is it? Why would you select me? Because I’m often asked by others. Yeah. Why should they select me? And, and I think that because your own perception of reality may be different from someone else’s, then it’s quite helpful to get someone else’s take on it. So if somebody says, “you are the person I’d come to in a crisis”, then maybe they’re the best advocate for me than I can be of myself. So actually ask your clients who have instructed you, what is it you bring to the table? And that is helpful in just going out and, and getting future opportunities.
Mia Forbes Pirie: And what have you found is your kind of unique set of characteristics that you can promote, that make your niche?
Suzanne Rab: Well, I think that it’s, it’s quite a multidisciplinary offering in, and that is perhaps, or perhaps be be clear from the journey that I’ve, I’ve explained to you that I have operated in, in very diverse context. So not just a lawyer as an economist, as a finance analyst not exclusively in England and and Wales. So I have dual heritage mm-hmm, India and, and UK-Ireland. And having that exposure to different, different cultures has really been beneficial in working overseas. Very interesting that just just a few days before this podcast is launching, we have the UK having signed, ratified, the, the Singapore convention, so the internationalism of, of mediation. But that’s where having that cultural sensitivity and my father once said to me, when you approach another culture, another person, you do so and you take your shoes off because what you’re approaching is sacred.
Mia Forbes Pirie: I love that. I love that you, you take your shoes off when you’re approaching another culture and there’s the sacred element and there’s, it feels like there’s a, a humility in that that’s really beautiful.
Suzanne Rab: Yes. And some behaviors, mannerisms which are acceptable in one culture may not be in another. Yes. And that’s where the nonverbal cues that we take as mediators may be very different de depending on the environment. And, of course, stereotypes abound. And I’m not here to make huge cultural stereotypes, but just having an appreciation that in some environments there is more about what is unsaid than actually said can help unleash potential for solutions. And if we simply just look at England and Wales in the 19th century, we can see there how much less was said overtly than maybe in today’s more expressive environment.
Mia Forbes Pirie: Yeah.
Suzanne Rab: And, and that is, that is, that is something that I’ve found very powerful. So it’s the multidisciplinary context, it’s the, the cultural sensitivity. And finally it’s been said that I will still be chripy at midnight. Now, I dunno if that is still true, but just a sense of resilience and energy and ability to keep the momentum going when people have reached the end of the road can often be what you need to, to find a way towards, towards resolution.
Mia Forbes Pirie: And that is so important, being able to keep things going and, and as the mediator you are in charge of that. I love what you’ve said about, about the unique qualities that you bring and bring together. I think it’s useful for everyone, men and women and, and anyone who identifies differently. And I feel like I wanna start rewriting my profile based on what you’ve said. I love it. It’s brilliant.
Suzanne Rab: Well, going back to the point about how we as human beings interact with others and what can you as a mediator bring to, to the table? And I think this is a message for lawyers and non-lawyers, and this is where I genuinely believe both professions have a great deal to contribute. And I had the benefit of spending some time in a more scientific environment, in the world of psychology and executive coaching and understanding a little bit more about the neuroscience of our brains, how they work and how they deal with, with conflict. Now, I am no expert in this and I will be very clear about that. And I certainly don’t want to rehash stereotypes about how people, different genders may react. but going back to, to the science, there is well-documented research about how the neuroscience gives us indicators about how male and female tend to react to conflict due to the chemical reactions, the flight and flight syndrome, and how pronounced that may be.
You do not have to necessarily believe that to perhaps understand what I’m going to say next, which is: once we can appreciate that for what it is stated, then perhaps it is a route to understand why individuals may react more overtly where they have a more of a direct relationship with with anger. Whereas others may be more restrained, maybe back their tongue, may be less frequently engaged in an out and out confrontation. And it has certainly helped me understand how different parties can be in the same environment, have a dispute, but take very, very different things away from what happened. And once you can see that, it allows you as a mediator to at least use those insights, first of all to keep your own flight and fight syndrome in check, but also perhaps as a reality check to perhaps question why the other party may have reacted in the way that they did.
Is it because they value other values such as communication, such as emotional sensitivity, responsiveness, or are they more focused on the written word, getting straight to it, what was said? And we see it in, when we’re progressing towards settlement, we know those parties who say, “all right, just tell me the bottom line, what is it?”, right. “What, what do they want?” Whereas going into another party just with the offer, without some context of, well, I need to understand the rationale, how are they getting to that will help you see how your responses to a situation may be different depending on a number of factors. Whether it’s how your brain is wired, whether it’s the cultural environment you’ve grown up in or other, other factors. And I think that has really helped me in my journey through mediation to, to just embrace some of the differences mm-hmm. of the individuals that I’ve worked with.
Mia Forbes Pirie: So you’re saying understanding the neuroscience, understanding a bit about the psychology, understanding about how people are different and how people react differently. And in fact, I have a thing that I do with, with sort of different communication styles, which fits in exactly with what you were saying about, you know, how people can be, “I wanna know the bottom line” or looking at all of the research and everything like that. That all helps you as a mediator.
Suzanne Rab: Absolutely. Yeah.
Mia Forbes Pirie: Fantastic. And so going…
Suzanne Rab: Going back to your other point about the challenges for, for women playing back what we’ve just just said. Anecdotally, it has been put to me by by clients that there may be a perception that a female mediator is not as able to manage the aggression within a mediation.
Mia Forbes Pirie: Wow.
Suzanne Rab: Not able to keep it under control, not able to deal with it in the same way as a male mediator may be able to. Now I can see a number of listeners will be reacting to that very strenuous. And we can react aggressively to that if we want to, or we can take a step back and think, first of all we do not need to agree to that or challenge it. If that is a perception, then it’s something that needs to be addressed. And it’s almost like the customer services helpline. You phone them up, you complain about whatever bill it is you’ve just paid that you think is too high. That customer services helpline doesn’t necessarily have to agree you are Right. But as the consumer of the service has to try to engage with your perception. Yeah. And I think that is what we’re faced with. I
Mia Forbes Pirie: Think you’re making a really important distinction that that often gets lost actually a around, okay, what is right or wrong? What is correct? What is actually factually happening? So I think there’s three things. What’s, what’s right and wrong? What, how would we like things to be? What is actually factually happening and what is the perception that people have? And, and those are three quite separate things. And I like the way you’re saying whether or not this is happening, we need to address the perception.
Suzanne Rab: Yes. Yeah. And I might be the best judge of what’s going on in my head. Yeah. Sort of you being clairvoyant or, or, or that, but you, Mia are the best judge of how I am coming across and you are perceiving me. Yeah. And I think that’s, that’s an important pipe for, for mediators themselves, for parties entering into a mediation and, and thinking about the other party’s perspective and also those selecting mediators.
Mia Forbes Pirie: Yeah. And different people hearing you might have different perceptions based on their culture and their views. Yeah. Fantastic. I was going to ask you, what are the struggles that women in particular face in commercial mediation? I feel like we’ve covered a lot of that, but I, if, I dunno if there’s anything more you wanna say about it before we move to the next question.
Suzanne Rab: I think that a lot of it we have covered in terms of the overt challenges that both you and I have have experienced at the instruction stage, but also during a mediation where there may be perceptions as to what you can bring to the table even once you have been selected. I think that the points we’ve made about neuroscience and culture are important lessons for people of, of all genders and however they wish to identify. I think for, for women pursuing a career in mediation, I think is one of the challenges that is, is present for all mediators, which is it is a wide market. There are a lot of mediators. And I think it’s something that we see in, in a d r generally that we like to think about the 80:20 rule in most things, which is usually when we talk about settlement, but actually it’s another phenomenon which goes to 80% of the works go into 20% of the mediator.
Mia Forbes Pirie: That’s so true. That’s so true.
Suzanne Rab: And I think that’s one of the things to think about whether you are male or female.
Mia Forbes Pirie: That’s so true. And, and I loved that before you mentioned the word “passion”. You said we had to have passion and examine our motivation. And I think if you’re going to mediate, you do have to have a passion for it because it, it is a wide market and there are a lot of mediators in it. So last question, which is perfectly on topic. How have things changed and what still needs to change to make commercial mediation, in particular, more accessible to women?
Suzanne Rab: I think we’ve, we’ve come a long way in, in mediation, but it’s tempting to see this as sort of more a recent phenomenon in terms of getting a respected profession, which is probably not yet given the same legitimacy as other forms of ADR, such as as arbitration. That’s a, a more, more general general point on the question of women in mediation. I think initiatives like this one that you are pursuing with this podcast, developments around international women’s day have elevated the consciousness of what all individuals can bring. I still think that going back to some of the observations I made earlier that that our mothers, sisters, grand mothers before as perhaps were the trailblazers and fought the fights. But I still think that there is a lot more to be done.
And I’d like to hope that some of the things that we’ve discussed today around mutual understanding of differences. Because I think that just saying we’re all the same and we’re all as good perhaps doesn’t quite hit the mark. I think the more illuminating insight is that all individuals, whether male or female, bring different qualities. And once we can see that, we are starting to make some progress to transforming what we need to do in terms of finding a safe environment in which all of those attributes can be brought forth to effective conflict resolution and opening up effective channels of communication. And I think what this shows is that because as mediators we believe that disputes are not gonna be fought through aggression and a fight that you’ve got to look at other techniques and to look at a more neutral zone of appreciating differences.
Mia Forbes Pirie: Fantastic. I love ending on appreciating differences because I think that that is really what is important and that’s where people can actually find the right mediator for whatever matter is by looking at what is the difference that this mediator brings and how can that be best applied to this matter.
Thank you so much, Suzanne. This has been a fantastic interview. I’ve so enjoyed talking to you. I’m going to definitely, I’m gonna take away so much from what you said. The USP and the way you develop it, I think is great advice for an anything and your social media example will really stay with me, I think for a long time and make me realize that as you said, people have been fighting the good fight and there’s still a lot more to do. Thank you so much, Suzanne.
Suzanne Rab: Thank you.