Snapshot: Women at the Bar

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The real picture: Sam Mercer explains what the Bar Council’s recent Snapshot research reveals about the experience of women at the Bar today and its recommendations for supporting long-term careers

You may have seen some of the rather sensationalist headlines that greeted publication of the Bar Council’s new gender report Snapshot: The Experience of Women at the Self-Employed Bar in July (The Independent: “Female barristers subjected to shocking levels of rampant sexism, says Bar report”, Law Gazette: “Sexism still rampant in the ‘children’s playground’ of the Bar”). 


The research looked closely at the experiences of women practising across the profession in 2014/15 at key stages in their career: in training; in junior practice; when taking Silk and seeking judicial appointment. It found that newly qualified women barristers have a very different and much more positive experience in training to become a barrister and in the early years of practice than their predecessors. Most of the negative pupillage experiences identified by participants were brought up by more senior practitioners and reports of recent sexual harassment were rare.

Research and rationale

The Bar Council wanted to hear the real stories and experiences of the women behind the gender statistics, and the highs and lows of being a woman in professional practice today. Invitations to participate in the research were sent to all practising women barristers on the South Eastern, Northern, Western and North Eastern Circuits. A total of 73 women, of mixed ages, from different ethnic groups with different religious beliefs and non-beliefs, and at different levels of seniority, participated in eight focus groups. These took place in London, Manchester, Leeds and Bristol from July to November 2014, and were held at different times of the day so as to accommodate as many participants as possible. Twelve women barristers were unable to attend the focus groups but were keen to participate and completed questionnaires.

Having attended all the focus groups, and transcribed the recordings, I found the most significant challenges identified were those of balancing career and caring responsibilities, and avoiding being pushed into certain types of work. These challenges may play a major part in the high attrition rate; many women leave the Bar after becoming parents and do not return. The findings also suggest that the prevailing conditions in different practice areas and the culture on Circuits and in individual chambers has a huge impact on different women’s experience of the profession. Snapshot delivers clear messages that will, we hope, set the agenda on where and how the Bar Council, the Bar Standards Board, the Inns of Court, the Specialist Bar Associations and Circuits, and individual chambers might better support women in a long-term career at the Bar.

Cultural change

The first message is good news – that as a profession, like many others, we have moved on. Some of the more senior participants in the research were the first to acknowledge that the Bar of today is nothing like the profession they joined in the 1980s and 1990s. The most serious examples of overt sexual harassment and sexist banter at the focus groups were those recounted by senior practitioners. Isolated incidents of inappropriate behaviour reported in current times were mainly in the form of “banter” (e.g. comments about appearance and during dining sessions) rather than physical incidents (such as inappropriate touching).

The prevailing view expressed at the focus groups was that as the older generation makes way for the next and social attitudes change, Bar culture would reflect this. That said, as in any industry we acknowledge there are still a few misogynists around and we should not be complacent. I’m sure many members of the profession would acknowledge not all incidents of sexual harassment will be overt or in public, nor will necessarily be reported, often due to concern that making a complaint might mean the end of the woman barrister’s career, or the ethos that barristers should not complain about each other.

Publicly funded practice and “women’s” cases

The second message is not so positive. It concerns overwhelming pessimism for the future amongst many women in publicly funded practice, particularly crime. There was a perception that progress made by women in the profession is slowly unravelling and that while cuts in income are damaging to both men and women, they are proving crippling for many women juggling child care and careers. Most women barristers who are parents are the primary carers for their children – data gathered in the Biennial survey found that 57% of women at the Bar with children were primary carers compared to just 4% of fathers at the Bar. The clear message was that any remuneration has to compensate for the cost of child care, late night and weekend working (and the impact that has on family life). Many women participating in this research, which is backed up by other research undertaken by the Bar Council (see Change of Status Report), find low levels of remuneration in some practice areas make it increasingly difficult to justify maintaining a career at the Bar. Any success in balancing family life and a career was put down to practice area, luck and the availability of either a partner as the primary carer or other support – perhaps an age-old problem but one exacerbated by the legal aid cuts.

It is particularly worth highlighting the impact of practice area. Many participants felt they had been pushed by clerks and others into the perceived traditional “women’s practice areas” of family law and sex crime, rather than more lucrative civil and fraud work. In a vicious circle, this then impacts on their income, potential practice flexibility of hours and location of work, and individual wellbeing.

Mentoring and collegiate support

The third message from Snapshot perhaps presents a glimmer of hope. It is that – despite the wider challenges of income and lack of flexibility in some practice areas – individual chambers, and individual members of the Bar, can and do make the difference across all practice areas, and this difference can be enough to enable a woman to stay in practice. This presents a clear opportunity for all members of the profession (men or women) to support their female colleagues. There is a special plea to senior women here. Whilst the challenges younger women face today are different to those faced by senior women when they were first called they can be just as difficult to overcome. Your help and support as mentors and role models makes a difference.

At one of the focus groups, a female barrister talked about the difficulty in facing a more experienced and well established male advocate in a chambers management meeting when relatively young, newly established and still finding your feet. Others agreed that it was particularly tough to argue for a policy designed to support caring responsibilities such as additional maternity support or rent relief, where you may be said to have a personal interest. They said that whilst the BSB’s Equality Rules help bolster their position, the real challenge remains in implementing the rules, and in securing very necessary enhanced support, particularly when times are hard; when chambers’ finances are under pressure; and when more senior male barristers endorse and enable misogynistic attitudes.

I do not believe that any man intends to intimidate or block the career prospects of a female colleague. I think perhaps we all need to be better at “walking in each other’s shoes”. Many chambers’ structures can counter-intuitively work against solidarity and mutual wellbeing when in reality they should be an enabler.

The recommendations

Snapshot sets out very practical recommendations (see below) to help women pursue their careers at the Bar. It is intended to open debate and discussion in chambers and across the profession. Snapshot is rich in real stories, and those who participated wanted to identify and suggest constructive solutions to make things better for other women in the profession and, inevitably, for the profession as a whole. Read it and make a judgement on whether the participants are making a valid point and what you can do to help.

The Bar Council would like to thank all who participated in this research and told their stories and to the chambers who hosted focus groups on the circuits. The full report can be found here. For more information contact SMercer@BarCouncil.co.uk.

MOMENTUM MEASURES: GENDER PARITY AT THE BAR

Fears for a long-term career at the Bar shared in Snapshot are confirmed by some number crunching that the Bar Council also recently undertook (Momentum Measures). Momentum Measures examined when, on current trends, the Bar might reflect the 50:50 gender split we see across the wider population. The research found, that while progress has been achieved at entry to the Bar (50% of pupils are women), this will fail to have any impact on the future profile of the profession. The reason for this is women are less likely to stay at the Bar throughout their careers (only 35% of the Bar is made up of women). Many women leave the Bar after becoming parents and do not return. Junior women leaving the Bar results in under-representation at senior levels. For every woman with more than 22 years’ call there are more than four men (Bar Council Core Database (1 June 2015): 812 women with >22 years’ Call vs 3,346 men with >22 years’ Call). This naturally has implications with respect to any gender targets within the senior judiciary, but also has implications with respect to power and influence, the ability to challenge the status quo and to inspire the next generation.

Snapshot recommendations are that the Bar needs to:

1. Encourage and facilitate mentoring of junior women by senior women – particularly around building a practice and establishing working relationships with clerks/practice managers.
2. Facilitate access to business advice/coaching on developing a sustainable practice better able to withstand and support career breaks and more flexible working associated with having a family.
3. Establish more senior and more visible female role models.
4. Promote women’s marketing networks for barristers, particularly on the Circuits and specifically focused on developing relationships with professional clients.
5. Create support networks (i) of working parents at the Bar as a source of advice and guidance around return to work, childcare, flexible working etc.; and (ii) of women at the Bar for other women in the profession.
6. Extend the Bar Nursery to the Circuits and explore what other direct and flexible childcare provision can be developed to support working parents at the Bar. 
7. Encourage a better gender balance on key decision-making committees within chambers to ensure chambers empower women members in decision-making and do not develop policies that disadvantage women.

COMMENT: Association of Women Barristers

“The Association of Women Barristers (AWB) welcomes the Bar Snapshot as this provides a valuable insight into the current and ongoing difficulties faced by women entering and working at the self-employed Bar, and will continue to work with the Bar Council to eradicate inequality within the profession. We remain extremely concerned that in 2015 we are still addressing the issues of sexism and inequality at the Bar. The AWB and organisations such as the Temple Women’s Forum have a key role to play in highlighting current issues and seeking workable solutions to the recommendations outlined in the report. The AWB is a national organisation and can therefore provide the Bar Council with support to run national events.” For more information see "Generation equality?Counsel May 2015 and the websites Temple Women's Forum.

If you have any comments on this article or relevant experiences that you would like to share, Counsel would like to hear from you. Contact the editor: sally.mccleery@lexisnexis.co.uk

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