SBA Report

When will women barristers be allowed to compete on a level playing field with their male counterparts, without stereotypes intruding? As the Association of Women Barristers marks its 25th anniversary in June, co-chair Lisa Wilson reflects on progress and future direction

‘Would you rather be a bitch or a bimbo?’ asked my criminal litigation tutor in Bar School, less than a decade ago. ‘As a woman entering the criminal Bar, those are your choices,’ he advised.


When asked ‘Why do we need the AWB?’, I break one of the cardinal rules of oratory by answering with the same question my tutor posed. It often does the trick. The men look bemused. The women, across practice areas, tend to say ‘Oh, right, that,’ or a variation thereof. So far, no male barrister I have spoken to in court or in chambers has been advised that he should be more of a bastard to earn the respect of those around him, or should smile less, or drink wine instead of pints to succeed in the profession. On the other hand, I am far from being the only female to have endured such admonishments.

Encouraging statistics

It is not all doom and gloom though. The 2015 Bar Standards Board (BSB) statistics show that 5,667 women are practising at the Bar; a large majority of whom (4,270) are self-employed. This compares with 10,248 practising male barristers, of whom 8,487 are self-employed. Nearly half of all employed barristers are female. Interestingly, these figures compare well to women MPs (23%) and university lecturers (21%) but not so well compared to GPs (47%) and secondary head teachers (39%) (Women in Public Life, the Professions and the Boardroom, Commons Briefing Paper 2014).

Since 2010 there has been an increase of 497 female barristers, compared with 533 male barristers. These are encouraging statistics, and we need only to scroll down to the bottom of chambers’ websites to see that just as many females are entering the profession as are men.

Why do we still need the AWB?

The answer to this is two-fold. First, if we didn’t, why are so many people still joining the AWB? Sixty-six new members so far have joined this year. Second, when we’re looking at chambers’ websites, it takes only a fraction of a second to recognise that women are poorly represented at a more senior level in the profession. Only 15% of heads of chambers and 13% of QCs are women. Rather dishearteningly, of the 107 barristers and solicitor-advocates awarded QC status in the latest intake, only 25 are female, leaving men to scoop the remaining 82 awards. The figures reveal that over half of female applicants were successful (a higher figure than the male applicants), so the problem appears to stem from a lack of female applicants.

While slightly more than a quarter of all judges in England and Wales are female, there are only eight in the Court of Appeal. There is only one woman on the Supreme Court – Baroness Hale, who happens to be a former AWB president.

Policy v practice

The Bar Council’s valuable survey, Snapshot: The Experience of Self-Employed Women at the Bar, revealed that there is still often a gap between policy and practice. In particular, women’s experience of bringing up children while at the Bar leaves a lot to be desired, which perhaps explains why women suffer a higher attrition rate once in practice. There is still too great a drop-off of women leaving the Bar to have children and not returning as it is deemed too difficult.

Part of this seems to stem from the unfortunate fact that women can be more intimidated than their male counterparts in raising concerns with their clerks about money (chambers rent, maternity packages, travel to court, cost of nappies and everything in between). These same women are fearless in fighting for the rights of complainants and defendants in court, or negotiating million-pound contracts, so it is not a lack of backbone. Rather, it appears to be something intrinsic within us that finds ‘money talk’ distasteful.

The rate of attrition is lamentable. It is important to have a greater percentage of talented women within the pool from which the High Court judiciary is chosen.

In 2012 the BSB introduced equality rules into the BSB Handbook, partly in order to improve retention rates and career development for women. Earlier this year the BSB carried out a survey to establish if the new rules are working in practice. Some 1,300 women barristers responded and we await the publication of the results with interest.

Where does the AWB come in?

Much of this can be remedied. The timing and location of networking events can act as an unintentional bar to female involvement: it’s an old trope, but if your chambers has always done its bonding with your big clients on the golf course or watching the Six Nations, do those events conflict with the school run? Does it feel rather like a closed shop? The AWB seeks to provide women with ways of ensuring fair access to work and equal opportunities to progress their career in a variety of ways.

Networking opportunities are vital. Mentoring. Education. Research. Participation in different legal events. We must make it easier for women to be able to continue or resume their practice after taking time out. Consider creating a ‘countdown’ so that clerks and solicitors can prepare to brief you on your return. Things that will increase a barrister’s exposure to solicitors, other barristers, their clerks, in a friendly informal setting will tend to increase confidence at the work place, understanding of nanny nightmares and are a chance to show your worth at work.

It doesn’t have to stop there. Lobbying Parliament on matters such as tax relief ought to be considered. After all, why in any other business can you declare your assistant as tax relief, yet can’t claim child care costs as a business expense in this profession? This would make a huge difference in attracting women back to practice, as it becomes more cost effective.

Why isn’t there an Association of Male Barristers?

Have you felt compelled to set up or join an AMB? The fact an AMB has never existed is, perhaps, proof enough that one is not needed. We all have a dream, and mine is that an AWB isn’t needed either. Ideally, I’d be chair of the AB, without the need to include any reference to gender. But the inclusion of the word ‘women’ in the title encourages those who might otherwise be more intimidated to come along and join in. Every email sent out on behalf of the association makes clear that men are welcome too. Actively encouraged in fact. Inclusion, after all, is the sure-fire way to achieve true equality. And in answer to my tutor, I am neither a bitch nor a bimbo. I am simply a barrister.

Contributor Lisa Wilson is Co-Chair of the Association of Women Barristers

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Lisa Wilson

Lisa Wilson is co-chair of the Association of Women Barristers, founded in 1991 to monitor and represent the interests of women at the Bar. She was called to the Bar in 2006 and has a criminal defence practice at Furnival Chambers.