Retention of women at the Bar has been highlighted as a problem and on the agenda for discussion for some time. The challenge is trying to understand why we struggle to retain and, more importantly, trying to devise solutions that actually deliver change.

When I joined the Equality and Diversity Committee in chambers, it was to take a lead on the issue of retention specifically. While retention is an issue for a number of different groups that are underrepresented at senior levels, I believe that the solutions will often be different for each group.

One solution might be to consider the impact of the menopause on women at the Bar and to identify what chambers can do to support members of chambers going through it. I have achieved the support and funding for menopause training to be offered to all members of my chambers and its staff, and to be compulsory for clerks and line managers.

Why might the menopause affect retention?

Considering the impact of menopause in the workplace might be fairly novel at the Bar, but it is not a new idea. Other industries have been engaging on this subject for some time. ACAS now advises all workplaces to have a menopause policy and to train line managers both to understand how menopause might affect an employee and how to make appropriate changes to support them. It is something being acted on in the police service, county councils and in many law firms. There have also been a number of successful employment tribunal cases, relating to lack of consideration for women going through the menopause.

Some people may question the relevance of menopause in the workplace. Most people probably have some sense that the symptoms of menopause involve hot flushes and the end of periods. However, many (including lots of pre-menopausal women!) are unaware that the symptoms also include:

  • loss of confidence;
  • loss of concentration;
  • difficulties sleeping;
  • mood changes, including anxiety; and
  • physical symptoms such as tiredness, headaches, joint stiffness.

These are often far more relevant in the workplace, and could easily be missed or attributed to something else.

We should also consider the timing of menopause. While this will be different for all women, the average age to go through the menopause is 51, meaning that many women will be experiencing menopausal and peri-menopausal symptoms in their mid to late 40s.

It therefore seems that just as women are reaching a point in their careers where they might be thinking about a silk application, or applying for a senior judicial appointment, they may also be experiencing a tangible dip in their usual performance (as a result of lack of sleep, poor concentration etc) and a huge crisis of confidence. In the current drive to encourage more women to apply for senior positions, it seems obvious (once you think or know about it) that we should be thinking about whether the menopause might in some cases be impacting those low application rates.

There has been an approximately 50:50 gender split of those called to the Bar since around the year 2000, but by 15 years’ call that drops to around 30% of barristers who are female, and, as at 2019, only approximately 15% of all silks were women. It is clear that there is a pinch point for retention of women, typically around their 30s, due to them starting families, but the numbers seem to continue to fall off the higher up the profession you go. This could be caused by ongoing struggles with childcare and juggling family life, but it is incumbent on us to continue to probe into why women are struggling to succeed alongside their male peers. It seems at least possible that the menopause could play a part in the problem.

Why offer training and what should the training cover?

The difficulty is that menopause is still, sadly, a real taboo subject in our society. On one level it’s shocking that this isn’t yet a mainstream conversation because, unlike childbirth and childcare, going through the menopause is something that will happen to all women at the Bar. Three in four women will experience symptoms of menopause, and one in four will experience significant symptoms.

There are now a number of good national providers who specialise in providing menopause training for workplaces. A quick Google will demonstrate that this is a conversation that we at the Bar are coming to rather late in the day.

My Chambers has selected workshop training sessions for all of our clerks to attend, as well as e-learning for all staff. We hope that this is something we can also offer to any member of chambers who wants to better educate themselves.

The training will be designed firstly to promote awareness of menopause and its symptoms and effects, and secondly, to work with clerks and staff line managers to consider if or how they can talk sensitively to women about the menopause and what changes they might be able to make to support women going through it. We hope to open up the subject, allow conversation and remove the taboo, so that women barristers feel able to talk to their clerks and colleagues about it, if they want or need to. In addition, we want to find ways to make women’s lives easier and support them to be able to stay, and thrive, at the Bar despite going through the menopause.

Sadly, having selected a provider and booked sessions, COVID-19 has seen the sessions cancelled. We very much look forward to getting back to a position where we can re-book and deliver these sessions.

What might we hope to achieve?

We hope that menopause training will make a real difference to women’s experiences. A significant proportion of clerks are men (which is a separate conversation) and often young men, meaning they shouldn’t’ be blamed if they have barely heard of the menopause, let alone have any real understanding of what impact it might have on the barristers they support.

The Bar should be somewhere with the flexibility to give women extra time and space to get work done, to work more flexibly for a period, or to rest and recover after a trial. That is never going to happen if our clerks don’t know that would be helpful. At the moment it must be very difficult for women to raise the subject. I expect many don’t.

We hope that by making menopause awareness training mandatory for all clerks, we will be able to break down the taboo; starting conversations about what women have been secretly going through for generations, and what clerks and chambers might now be able to do, to take some of the pressure off, or provide support.

The aim is that by making the lives of women going through menopause at the Bar easier, they might not only be more inclined to stay, but feel supported and empowered to continue to fulfil their ambitions for their careers. Further, even putting applications for promotion to one side, don’t we need to be doing more (or at least doing something) to support women who might be facing different degrees of internal struggle at work?

Having launched and promoted the initiative internally, I have been surprised and gratified by the number of more senior members of chambers, staff and solicitors who have expressed not only their support for the idea, but anecdotes of how challenging they found going through the menopause alone at work. I sincerely hope that they will be the last generation to have done so.