Naomi Cunningham named in The Lawyer‘s 2022 Hot 100

Naomi Cunningham, employment and discrimination barrister and Chair of Sex Matters, has received a prestigious industry accolade, in part for her outstanding work in the debate on sex and gender, in The Lawyer’s annual “Hot 100”.

The Lawyer’s Hot 100 recognises the “most daring, innovative and creative lawyers from in-house, private practice and the Bar… they are the lawyers of the moment.” 

Cunningham came to the fight at a point in her career when she was starting to feel stale – and, as she puts it, beginning to wonder “Is this it?” Like many others, she was first alerted to what she now calls “the gender wars” by the government consultation in 2018 on proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act 2004 to bring in self-identification. What really galvanised her was the employment tribunal’s judgment in Forstater – where a judge said that Maya Forstater, who had lost her job because some of her colleagues objected to her engagement in the debate about the GRA, could not complain of discrimination on grounds of her gender-critical beliefs because those beliefs were “not worthy of respect in a democratic society”. Of that judgment (since overturned on appeal) she says: 

I was shocked rigid; it was a truly disorientating moment. The beliefs that the judge considered so bigoted that they didn’t merit Equality Act protection were almost exactly my beliefs, too; and they were beliefs that were so self-evidently well-founded as to be boring. It made as much sense to me as being told that a belief that humans were mammals – or that gravity was real, or there could be no fossil rabbits in the Precambrian – was so toxic it didn’t merit protection under the Equality Act. If it hadn’t been so shocking, and so dangerous in its implications, it would have been funny.

In 2020, Cunningham joined the Legal Feminist collective, where she found a new professional network of “clever, angry, energetic, funny, loyal women”. She says the work has been both life-changing and career-changing. She published her first post on the Legal Feminist blog, on the subject of women’s sport, in July 2020. The Legal Feminists put her forward to give evidence on their behalf in February 2021 to the Women and Equalities Select Committee. She was invited to join Sex Matters, and as its Chair has helped turn it into an effective and influential campaign group in under a year, something she describes as a thrilling privilege. 

In January 2021, the embryonic Sex Matters was preparing its website for the organisation’s imminent launch. Maya Forstater had asked Cunningham to draft a few hundred words on how sex matters in the legal system. Researching that short piece of writing opened her eyes to the extent of the campaigning organisation Stonewall’s reach into legal (and other public) institutions through its Diversity Champions and Workplace Equality Index schemes, and the extraordinary ambition of its attempts to control every aspect of its client organisations’ behaviour – not just their treatment of staff, but their engagement with customers and suppliers and, in the case of public bodies, the performance of their public functions.

That led to Cunningham’s 5,000-word piece Submission and Compliance about Stonewall’s workplace schemes, and to a follow-up blog with a call to action, proposing a mass FOIA campaign to get information about Stonewall’s activities into the public sector. She explains: 

The campaign was picked up on Mumsnet, and went like a train – I had no idea how much strength of feeling there was out there, or how many people urgently wanted to contribute to this effort. It was a heartening moment.” 

These days, Cunningham’s main professional – as well as campaigning – interests centre on the debate about sex and gender. She has made a close study of the single-sex exceptions in the Equality Act, and of the relationship between the Equality Act and the Gender Recognition Act. And she is starting to develop an expertise in related areas such as professional discipline, FOIA and public law.

Her passion, expertise and fierce campaigning have made waves in the legal industry. Being named by The Lawyer as one of its Hot 100 is a ringing endorsement of a brilliant barrister and committed campaigner.