With men still dominating the profession’s upper strata, the bar is stepping up its efforts to support women lawyers.
I have just returned from the chairman of the Irish bar’s annual dinner in Dublin, where Brexit was the main topic of conversation.
Among the many other guests at the dinner in the lovely King’s Inn were the minister for justice and equality (who also holds the post of the tánaiste, the deputy prime minister), the chief justice of the Irish Supreme Court and the attorney general. All three were female. As yet, in England and Wales none of these posts, or their equivalent, have been held been a woman. We must still aspire to this.
We have for more than 10 years had equal numbers of men and women at qualification, but the challenge remains in career retention. Women are still leaving the profession in disproportionate numbers and remain under-represented at silk and in the senior judiciary. There has been improvement in the statistics for appointment of female QCs and High Court judges, but the numbers of those succeeding continues not to reflect of those who qualified in the relevant cohorts. As far as practice is concerned, harassment and sexist behaviour, although not common, remains a challenge.
In 2015, the Bar Council published two key reports which considered the experiences of women at the bar: first, Snapshot: The experience of self-employed women at the Bar and second, Momentum Measures: Creating a diverse profession. The second report analysed data on equality and diversity at the bar more widely.
The Snapshot report contains a mix of qualitative and quantitative research and captures the experiences of some self-employed women in the profession. The Bar Council has committed to take steps to support the recommendations coming out of the report by building on what we already provide.
There is now a great deal of assistance available for women barristers looking for advice on sustaining and progressing their careers and on the juggling of career and family responsibilities and also for those facing harassment and discrimination. One of our challenges remains a lack of awareness in the profession of what assistance and support is on offer.
Of course, the various initiatives designed to support women barristers cannot be the sole answer to the challenges they face in their careers. It is, however, clear to me, from speaking to women barristers of all ages and practice areas in the last few months, that such assistance and support can make a critical difference. We need to do more to ensure that barristers are aware of what is available. Awareness more broadly is crucial if we are going to improve matters. Inevitably the challenges individuals face are rarely unique and there is a wealth of Bar Council guidance for chambers aimed at improving workplace practices at the bar.
The Snapshot survey indicated that despite the fact that some women had suffered negative experiences and were working in a very challenging environment, most of the women who participated in this research clearly loved the bar and wanted to suggest constructive solutions to make things better for others in the profession. This is encouraging and something to build on.
There is clearly no problem in attracting women to the bar, with women and men joining in equal numbers.
Our research suggests that one of greatest challenges experienced by women working within the profession continues to be balancing career and caring responsibilities. These challenges are particularly acute for women in publicly funded practice, the area in which women practise to a disproportionately high extent. Substantial cuts to legal aid and the resultant cuts in earnings are making sustaining practice very difficult, particular against a backdrop of ever-increasing educational debt. These economic conditions are also discouraging women barristers from applying for silk in some practice areas.
We have known for some time that too many women leave the bar early. In 2015, the Bar Council and its Equality and Diversity and Social Mobility Committee said it would work to increase opportunities and remove barriers to prevent this loss of valuable talent. As part of this commitment we are working on a growing suite of measures to provide support for women at the bar, and indeed for anyone facing challenges or barriers in their careers.
They include an equality and diversity helpline (020 7611 1320) for employed and self-employed barristers facing discrimination and harassment and for chambers struggling with equality and diversity policies, as well as a mediation and arbitration service for resolving disputes when things breakdown. We have also set up the Bar Council ‘parental hub’ for barrister parents (women as well as men) seeking support and guidance on balancing their careers at the bar with parenting responsibilities. This provides career break advice, useful contacts, access to the bar nurseries and their discounted rates and extended hours, as well as seminars on family career breaks.
Mentoring remains an important part of the package and the bar mentoring service currently offers three different schemes, designed to support individuals, women and men in accessing the profession, in staying in practice and in progressing within the profession.
We are working on a growing suite of measures to provide support for women at the bar, and for anyone facing challenges or barriers in their careers
The BSB Handbook equality and diversity rules shape the working environment and we await with interest the results of the Bar Standards Board’s recent survey in this respect. At the Bar Council we are working to provide support to chambers with initiatives such as an equality and diversity officers’ network to support EDOs and those with a ‘management’ role in chambers, exchanging good practice and how to tackle challenges in retention. In addition we have produced guidance, and run E&D training sessions, on complying with BSB E&D rules and sample policies, all aimed at ensuring fair treatment including on fair recruitment, sexual harassment, parental leave and workforce monitoring.
We hope to announce more initiatives shortly.
Other parts of the legal services sector are also seeing progress being made in the support available to women in law to assist them in developing their careers unhindered. For example, the Law Society’s women lawyers division supports and advises women solicitors including LPC graduates, roll members, women on a career break and retirees, across areas of practice. The division’s returners’ course, which runs twice a year, provides returning solicitors, men and women, with the tools to return to the profession after a career break.
In short, much has changed, but there is still a long way to go. The First 100 Years project, supported by both the Bar Council and the Law Society, is charting the journey of women in law since 1919. In 2019, together with the professions, it will mark the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 which paved the way for women to become lawyers for the first time in England and Wales.
Perhaps by then, we will have a woman in at least one of the positions (or an equivalent position) I mentioned at the outset of this article.
Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC is the chairman of the bar