Interview by Xanthe Fuller
Baroness Cohen is a senior lawyer and Labour peer. Graduating from Newnham College with a B.A. in Law in 1962, Janet Cohen went on to forge a colourful career as a solicitor, civil servant and merchant banker, culminating with her appointment to The House of Lords in 2000. She was formerly Director of the London Stock Exchange for over ten years, Governor of the BBC, Chairman of the Cambridge Arts Theatre and currently holds the position as Chancellor of BPP. A published author specialising in crime fiction, Cohen has also written 10 books. I sat down to talk with Baroness Cohen before our Women in Law event in November, and I found her impressive and remarkably likeable.
Baroness Cohen came to Cambridge for the first time when she was fifteen, as a prospective student. She fell in love with King’s, ‘fat lot of good that did me’, a college that was, at that time, a complete impossibility. The only colleges open for women in the late fifties were Newnham, Girton and the newly-founded Newhall (now Murray-Edwards). Women being few and far between was a bit of a recurring theme during Cohen’s time at Cambridge, Cohen was never supervised by a woman, ‘I cannot name you a single female lawyer of that time who was here’. The Law School itself had 702 students, 700 men and 2 women, quite a contrast to the contemporary statistics, in 2014 55.9% of the admission acceptances to the Law school were by women. To look at Cohen’s professional trajectory in the civil service, merchant banking, the London Stock Exchange and the House of Lords, one could believe that she continued to face similar ratios, but in fact she ‘never had as bad a ratio as in the Cambridge Law school’.
Cohen is sharp and witty, a bit of a force to be reckoned with. She navigated predominantly male contexts with a particular tool: treating men as if they were one of her brothers. She herself has only brothers and is, ‘of course’, the eldest: ‘I am the leader of the pack’ and reckons that when they were younger her brothers would have had the mantra ‘what would Janet do?’ This background stood her in good stead for the rest of her career, unafraid to both lead and be supported by men. She finds brothers ‘immensely valuable because they close behind you automatically’, much in the same way as her gang of male colleagues were on hand if anything happened. The ambiguity of this statement led me to ask whether she herself had any comments to make upon the recent sexual harassment claims in government: ‘it’s an area where I never had trouble and I was trying to work out why. I’m an adult woman so have obviously had the odd grope but if anything was in anyway bothersome I would just tell the boys.’
This was not, however, a universal means of navigating a largely male environment during her time in the civil service: ‘I knew Mrs Thatcher quite well because she ate both my bosses’. When posted to the Seal division in a fairly senior position during the strikes, Mrs Thatcher seemed to have a differing view from Cohen’s bosses and thus ‘ate’ them, suddenly giving Cohen far more senior responsibilities than expected. Baroness Cohen is also acquainted with our current Prime Minister. Theresa May has ‘the same eye for detail and the same intolerance of nonsense as Mrs Thatcher had, which I greatly admire, but what I never spotted about her until the election campaign was how difficult she finds human interaction, Mrs Thatcher didn’t find it difficult at all, she rowed over all present. It used to make me laugh, because at my worst I am like that.’
It’s inspiring to talk to a woman who has forged such a successful and varied path in such a challenging time for women, ‘a very, very different culture’. It suggests that the mantra ‘what would Janet do?’ is a very effective means of operating and one that we could all, in some way, learn from.