In 2017 the Western Circuit Women’s Forum (WCWF) established an innovative mentoring scheme designed to: make mentoring the expectation not the exception; meet women’s specific concerns with practical advice and support from female
colleagues at the most critical time of women’s careers; whilst simultaneously increasing the visibility of senior women.
Since then we have automatically allocated a female mentor of over 10 years’ call to every female practitioner on circuit under 10 years’ call. You can opt out but you don’t have to opt in. There are now upwards of 80 such pairs
on our circuit and other circuits have followed suit. What a sea change!
We know there is a significant exodus of women from the Bar mid-career (see below). We know that retention would be improved by more gender-specific support and better visibility of senior female practitioners. We know there was evidence that some
women felt seeking mentoring or career support would be stigmatised as ‘pushy’ (Bar Standards Board, 2016: Women at the Bar, and Bar Council, 2015:
Snapshot: The Experience of Self-Employed Women at the Bar).
Our scheme, which aims to address these issues, has been enthusiastically welcomed: ‘Since another member of the Bar has indicated a willingness to act as a mentor and is assigned to you, one instantly feels less guilty (for want of a better
word) about bothering that person and taking time away from their working day… enjoying a relationship with a barrister outside your own chambers [avoids] the need to ‘sugar coat’ the situation and save face in front of colleagues.’ Mother of two pre-school children
‘Seeking out this advice alone can be difficult… there can still be a stigma attached to raising concerns about gender inequality and individuals are often... reluctant to do so.’ Junior tenant
‘… an easily accessible resource for guidance and advice, [and] also promotes a new way of thinking about women’s roles at the Bar.’ Junior tenant
Equivalent praise of the scheme by mentors demonstrates its mutual benefits. We are always learning and improving and, with the support of Portsmouth University, are monitoring the scheme through an independent survey.
Advice for new mentor-mentees
- Diarise: the hardest part is making time to meet – during your first session plan a realistic diary of meetings including telephone contact.
- Understand: at the first meeting, the mentor should try to understand the issues facing the mentee and her aims, ambitions and any perceived obstacles.
- Distill: focus on the mentee’s most pressing concerns at the start, and build a conversation around what steps she might take to resolve those concerns.
- Share: be prepared to share your own perceptions, experiences, and knowledge of the Bar and that of other senior colleagues – if you haven’t experienced it, you probably know a woman who has.
- Think broadly: networking, career planning, gender inequality issues, planning for career breaks, when to make applications etc.
- No need to reinvent the wheel: access mentoring and equality and diversity resources from your mentoring organisation, Bar Council, Bar Standard Board and other Specialist Bar Associations.
- Keep: for future reference, keep a brief note of key topics discussed and any agreed action.
- Confidentiality: treat matters discussed in meetings as strictly confidential unless there is agreement to share the information further.
Blueprint to success
We are heartened by the enthusiastic uptake, feedback and our own experiences of mentoring. We hope you will inspired to find – or start – a mentoring scheme near you and are happy to share our blueprint. See: westerncircuit.co.uk/womens-forum, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow: @WCWF_
How to: get back to the Bar
Our 2018 Back to the Bar survey demonstrated the significant exodus of women from the Bar mid-career, particularly, but not exclusively, as they face difficulties
of balancing work and family. Yet the results also encourage optimism: a significant proportion of women could be retained with changes to working patterns and culture.
This scheme was designed to meet a particular need. WCWF of course supports mentoring for and by men, and for all stages of careers. WCWF also offers ‘super-mentoring’ for female senior practitioners on all aspects of judicial and