Equality ahead

Time for the Bar to rise to the equality challenge and find more effective ways for women to stay on in the profession, argues Fiona Jackson

In July the Bar Standards Board (BSB) published Women at the Bar, a report of its survey of all practising female barristers on the implementation and effectiveness of the Equality Rules that came into force in 2012. 

Over 1,300 women took the opportunity to respond; almost 80% were self-employed barristers in chambers (see 'Women and the equality rules', Counsel).

In summary, recruitment was generally seen as fair, but awareness of regulatory requirements in chambers to both monitor work allocation and have harassment policies was low. Only a small proportion of those who had experienced harassment or discrimination felt able to report it, citing concern about the impact on their career and prevailing attitudes within the profession.

Experience of flexible working policies in practice was mixed. Awareness of maternity/parental leave policies was found to be high, but many felt that taking such leave had a negative impact on their practice. Consequently a large majority of respondents had contemplated leaving the Bar, especially those from a BAME (black and minority ethnic) background, those who had experienced discrimination or harassment, or were the primary carer for children.

Seizing opportunities for change

The survey should be welcomed for giving another opportunity for women barristers to relate their experiences and drive the agenda for change. The BSB recommendations stemming from the report, apparently due later this year, must be driven by a desire to improve retention, with strong enforcement of the Equality Rules and quick response to legislative change as a priority. For example, the Bar Council has repeatedly pressed for regulation of shared parental leave but the BSB is yet to consult on this issue. Self-employed parents wanting to combine professional practice and duties to chambers with childcare responsibilities continue to encounter difficulties meanwhile. Most respondents reported the Equality Rules have not yet had a significant impact. The report could have done more to explore what our regulator could be doing to help women and it would have been useful to establish when the incidents of harassment and discrimination occurred.

Removing obstacles

The Bar is a highly competitive profession that, in my view, should continue to recruit and retain the best and brightest lawyers solely on merit and regardless of their gender, ethnic background, age, sexual orientation or disability. Where there are any barriers and obstacles still in place that artificially act to distort that equal recruitment and retention, we must act speedily to remove them to ensure that there is genuine equality of opportunity and that our legal system and judiciary is capable of better corresponding to the community it represents. A career in self-employment at the Bar is attractive for all sorts of reasons, but it should not be beyond the wit of our profession to enable each other to make life choices, such as caring for children or family members or working flexibly, without having a potentially devastating impact on a successful career.

For the Bar Council’s Equality, Diversity & Social Mobility Committee and its Retention Panel in particular, the challenge in relation to women barristers remains finding ways to help women to stay on in the profession. A year ago, the Bar Council’s Snapshot – the experience of self-employed women at the Bar identified similar problems. Women barristers had faced discrimination and harassment, and felt pushed into family and sex crime work in junior practice. Snapshot also highlighted the challenges many women faced in managing a practice while also being a primary carer for children, especially in publicly funded work. Networking opportunities were seen as male-orientated as was the clerking culture, and power balances in chambers were also a factor in limiting women’s ability to reach the heights of the profession.

Thankfully reports of sexual harassment and direct discrimination appear to be reducing, but it is extremely depressing still to read comments such as these from the Bar Council’s ongoing Change of Status survey: ‘There were far fewer opportunities for the same quality of cases and career progression when working part-time which I wanted to do to balance family life.’ ‘After having children, my earnings fell to about 1/10th of what my contemporaries were earning and didn’t cover my childcare costs. I eventually realised that trying to carry on was pointless.’ ‘No regular working hours, no secure or reliable income, no understanding amongst clerks or at court of the challenges facing working mothers, a practice full of warned list trials with a complete inability to plan for childcare, 4-5 hours of travel per day on average. Impossible.’

The Bar Council is working hard to implement the Snapshot recommendations to support women practitioners (see bwloq). Our aim is that anyone who approaches the Bar Council today will get the help and support they need to resolve an issue and maintain a practice. The key message is that if you need help, act early to seek it before an issue becomes intractable and difficult to resolve with chambers.

Further help

The Bar Council Parental Support Hub has details of all assistance currently offered, together with links to policies, guidance and the family career breaks advice pack; Equality & Diversity Helpline: tel 020 7611 1320

Contributor Fiona Jackson, 33 Chancery Lane and Vice Chair of the Bar Council’s Equality, Diversity and Social Mobility Committee

Putting ‘Snapshot’ into practice

  • More mentoring, especially of junior women by senior women, to help build confidence in themselves and their ability to control their practice and relationships with others in chambers.
  • Creating additional support networks for working parents eg Maternity Mentoring Scheme, Family Career Breaks workshops and devising model flexible working policies for chambers.
  • Promoting women barristers’ marketing networks, particularly on the Circuits, eg led by Kate Brunner QC, the Western Circuit’s Women’s Forum, which it is hoped will be followed by other Circuits.
  • Extending the Bar Nursery to Leeds as well as London and exploring other flexible childcare provision.
  • Holding regular events for chambers equality & diversity officers on the Equality Rules and Bar Council guidance and encouraging a better gender balance on committees in chambers to empower women members and guard against policies that disadvantage.
  • Highlighting more senior and more visible female role models to encourage women to think positively in all areas of professional life.
  • Exploring options for accessing business advice and coaching on developing a sustainable practice eg Association of Women Barristers workshop at the Bar Conference.
  • Publishing practice guidance including on sexual harassment.
  • Recruiting an increasing army of volunteer barristers to assist and advise others – please contact Sam Mercer, Head of Policy: Equality & Diversity and CSR (smercer@barcouncil.org.uk; 020 7611 1320).
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Fiona Jackson

Fiona practises in the areas of domestic and international fraud and money laundering, international mutual legal assistance and international regulatory work, proceeds of crime and tracing, civil and criminal asset recovery, business crime and regulatory issues.