The answer we give is based on our own knowledge and experience. My recent straw poll of women barristers confirmed my initial fears – many of us do not encourage our daughters to follow in our footsteps. Is this because of the difficulties facing women at the Bar once they start a family, and the challenges when returning after maternity leave?

The Bar Barometer 2014 and the second Barristers’ Working Lives report point to problems with retention beyond 12 years’ Call, and progression to Silk and into the judiciary. The Bar Council has set priorities under both headings to achieve the aim of promoting equality and diversity across the profession to meet these continuing concerns. My research for this article revealed that the current issues facing women practitioners are not dissimilar to those faced by their predecessors.

The practising profession is not decreasing in size, despite rumours that the profession is shrinking. Recent figures to 2012 suggest that membership is around 15,500, comprised of 81.4% (12,680) of self-employed barristers and 17.4% (2,780) of employed barristers. Around a third of these are women (5,412).

The Bar has come a long way since Dr Ivy Williams, born in 1877, became the first women to be Called to the Bar of England and Wales. In 1922 she was welcomed by Inner Temple, setting the precedent for other women to follow in her footsteps. A number of successful role models since have included Baroness Butler-Sloss, Baroness Hale, Dame Janet Smith, Lady Justice Hallett, Lady Justice Rafferty and Mrs Justice Cox, to name but a few.

If we look a little deeper we need to ask why the membership of the self-employed Bar does not reflect the almost equal numbers of men and women who enrol for the BPTC. Of the 12,680 members of the self-employed Bar in 2012, around 4,117 were women. The employed Bar, however, appears to be a firm career choice for women with maternity leave, annual leave and, where available, flexible working policies. Those women choosing an employed career are almost in equal numbers to men. Why is it that women are not staying at the Bar and receiving the recognition they deserve? The QC figures for 2014/15 confirm that of the 93 Silk appointments only 25 were women, highlighting the imbalance at the top of the profession.

Here to help: role models and networking support

The Association of Women Barristers (AWB) has played a key role in advancing the interests of women at the Bar since its inception 24 years ago. One recent success is that of the Bar Nursery at Smithfield House offering flexible childcare facilities near the Inns of Court; the result of unrelenting work by a former AWB chair with the Bar Council. Young women in the profession need role models to aspire to. It is here that the AWB can continue to play a key role by supporting prospective female pupils through their application stage at the annual pupillage clinic which provides attendees with an opportunity to discuss their applications with new tenants and those involved in the pupillage recruitment process (see case studies below).

Silk application workshops have also proved popular with members in recent years, with women QCs giving up their valuable time to share personal experiences of the application round.

The AWB has also played a key role in highlighting the inequalities that exist for women in the criminal justice system by hosting a series of seminars which have included female genital mutilation (2011), prostitution (2012), child exploitation: the Rochdale experience (2012), child sexual abuse (2013), as well as a key workshop at the Bar Conference focusing on female genital mutilation (2014) to support our ongoing commitment to the eradication of this abhorrent crime.

Recent key events have included a seminar on the subject of forced marriage and honour-based abuse (16 April), the AWB pupillage clinic (20 April), and a joint event with Inner Temple Women’s Forum, with a keynote address from the Lord Chief Justice on the subject of equality at the self-employed Bar (27 April). Spring drinks are being arranged for 21 May.

The AWB continues to provide women entering the profession with support throughout their careers whilst the problems of retention and progression remain.

Contributor Neelam Sarkaria
Chair of the Association of Women Barristers

Pupillage clinic: case studies

Student A had completed a draft pupillage application detailing her academic successes at a Russell Group University but with little detail of her interests and leisure pursuits. This application had previously been submitted but not progressed to interview. After spending some time at the pupillage clinic speaking to chambers pupillage committee members, Student A reworked her application to remove those fatal typographical errors, and include some detailed information about her interests and how these had contributed to her choice of profession. As a result she was successful in securing an interview for pupillage.

Student B had made several unsuccessful attempts to secure pupillage at a range of different chambers. Her uncertainty was evident in her application. After talking to a variety of speakers at the pupillage clinic she realised that what she was really looking for was future job security and, in fact, wanted to work in an employed environment.