Gender equality among practising barristers ‘will never be reached’ if current trends continue, a report from the Bar Council has concluded.
Although women now represent over half of those called to the bar, the report showed that women are ‘less likely to convert into practice and more likely to leave practice than men’.
It found that overall men have an 8% higher probability of practising, which would mean that the proportion of women being called to the bar would need to be around 58% to achieve a gender balance.
However, the Momentum Measures: Creating a diverse profession report showed that the bar has already achieved or would imminently achieve its target of 20% black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people practising at the bar.
But at silk level the picture was less positive, as the report found that equality was never likely to be achieved on current trends for both women and those who identify as BAME.
The proportion of women who are QCs has remained under 20% for the past 13 years, and has not exceeded 10% for BAME barristers.
The Bar Council’s equality, diversity and social mobility committee commissioned Professor Martin Chalkley’s report in 2014, to understand when the profession might reflect the general population profile of England and Wales.
Professor Chalkley said the findings have potential policy implications, and indicate that future action might be needed to either increase representation of women called to the bar or to reduce attrition and in increasing conversion from call to practice.
Gender equality at call was achieved around 14 years ago, the report showed, as women started outnumbering men at call around 2000 and have generally continued to do so since then.
At the pupillage level, there is a ‘slight imbalance’ in favour of women, the report said. But it showed the proportion of barristers who are women with a current practising certificate appears to be stable at 35%.
Chalkley said that as the findings indicate that ethnicity targets, except for QCs, had already been achieved or will be imminently, ‘it may be necessary to focus on a smaller, under-represented ethnic groups rather than BAME groups altogether’.
The report predicts a ‘rapid increase’ in the BAME proportion of practising barristers from the current 17% level, towards 20% and beyond within 10 years.
Sam Mercer, head of equality and diversity at the Bar Council said: ‘The self-employed nature of the profession is a significant barrier to those who wish to have a family and stay in practice and legal aid cuts are making retention even more difficult as incomes fall and childcare costs rise.’
He added that the bar is already working on initiatives to help retain female barristers, such as expanding the bar nursery to the circuits and offering support and advice in managing family career breaks.