Annual Bar Conference 2016: Generating a diverse profession

Learning from international experience

According to the Bar Council, on current trends, 50:50 gender balance at the Bar is unlikely ever to happen. 

This panel, ably moderated by Fiona Jackson, was impatient for change. They did not want to wait 100 years for tangible progress to be made. This made for a session which left me feeling energetic, impassioned and hopeful about the future.

The focus of the session was gender diversity, but a theme throughout was that this issue is not just about women. It is about every marginalised group at the Bar. Gender diversity is a symbol of where we are as a profession and it needs to buck the trend. If women cannot achieve parity, then what hope can there be for other groups?

Jackson broke down the figures. Although we achieved parity in the number of women called to the Bar some years ago, the number in senior positions continues to remain low, with 13% of female QCs, 15% of female heads of chambers and 28% of female judiciary. These figures are alarming when we compare ourselves with our European neighbours. Gráinne Mellon pointed to a recent Council of Europe report, showing the percentage of women in the judiciary in England and Wales to be among the lowest in Europe, just ahead of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Why is there parity at entry but not senior levels? Jackson explained this is partly due to attrition rates at the self-employed Bar. Maternity and child care are challenging at best and the numbers fall off a cliff at child-bearing age. In addition, many get pushed into traditionally ‘female’ areas of practice, such as family or sex crime, which are some of the lowest paid areas at the Bar. When cuts in legal aid set in, attrition rates grow.

Mellon offered a comparison with the Bar of Ireland. In one sense, the visibility of women at the senior Bar is better. In Ireland, the Attorney General, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Chief Justice of Ireland and the Minister of Justice are all women. But in many ways, the Irish Bar is a long way behind the Bar of England and Wales, with women overwhelmingly experiencing discrimination and harassment and very high attrition rates.

Brie Stevens-Hoare QC encouraged us to address the subtle, pervasive challenges. Interruptions. Views quietly ignored. The noticeable absence of a tap on the shoulder suggesting an application for Silk. Mentoring, by and for men and women, is a key tool in bringing about change.

Angela Grahame QC challenged us to think of change as trickle up rather than trickle down. Young women should take responsibility for moulding their mentors by approaching them and asking them to put their heads above the parapet, to go for the senior positions and to use their seniority to be vocal about the need for change.

Harini Iyengar argued in favour of quotas to speed up pace of change. This sparked lively debate in the room; some feared quotas might result in conclusions such as ‘she only got the job because she is a woman’. But countless studies of unconscious bias show that, by virtue only of gender, men are more likely to get a job than women. Do we conclude, ‘he only got the job because he is a man’?

Despite the disheartening statistics, this was a positive session. The Bar Council is already taking action, including facilitating mentoring, support networks of working parents, women’s marketing events and nurseries. We are learning lessons from other jurisdictions, like Australia. And each and every one of us can propel change by taking action at grassroots level. Be vocal about enforcement of equality and diversity policies in your workplace. Give and receive mentoring and coaching. Engage in intergenerational discussion and dialogue. Speak to three women today and empower them.

Contributor Aoife Drudy

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Aoife Drudy

Government Legal Service and a member of the Counsel editorial board