In May 1922 Ivy Williams was the first woman called to the Bar. Six months later she was followed by Helena Normanton, the first woman to practise at the Bar and who enjoyed a stellar, ground-breaking career. One hundred years on, women make up nearly 39% of all barristers and 18% of QCs, according to the Bar Standards Board’s (BSB’s) latest diversity report.

Figures from UCAS show the number of female applicants for law courses has risen by 41% in the last decade to 2021. Some may think there is no problem and that the playing field is now level. It is not.

International Women’s Day is a good time to reflect on what more we can do and now is a perfect moment to celebrate the launch of the Inns of Court Alliance for Women and the thriving women’s networks that exist on Circuit and within different practice areas.

Every head of chambers, every management committee, every clerking team should be thinking about the existing barriers for women and asking what can we do about it?

Female barristers are more likely to be found in the younger age groups and the Life at the Young Bar report shows we have an overall gender balance and increasing diversity at entry level. This is positive news, but over the last two years, nearly half of all women at the Young Bar have suffered bullying and harassment.

A BSB report published in February showed that on average ethnic minority female barristers are the lowest earnings group, with average incomes at 41% of their white male counterparts. The report adds that unequal pay ‘holds true whether the comparison is limited to employed barristers, self-employed barristers, QCs, and barristers based both inside and outside London’.

The Bar Council’s 2021 Barristers’ Working Lives report shows that a third of barristers in commercial practice are women (34%), female barristers are much more likely to work in family practice (69%) and in other specialist areas women make up less than half; in civil practice (47%), criminal (44%), personal injury/professional discipline and negligence (43%).

Only in the areas of family and children practice are women’s earnings higher than men and only 51% of women barristers in all practice areas believe work is fairly distributed. Please look at the Bar Council’s Monitoring Work Distribution Toolkit and consider how it might help address the imbalance.

The Bar Council has set up a Flexible Working Group including barristers, solicitors and chambers managers to develop practical tools including a best practice guide. Our 2021 survey shows that nine out of ten barristers (90%) said they work full-time, with nearly half (49%) saying they also work weekends.

Women barristers are twice as likely to work part-time and are also more likely to work at the weekend. Four in ten female barristers (41%) have reported they are the main carer for children and more female barristers (when compared to their male counterparts) are responsible for the regular care of elderly relatives or other adults.

A recent YouGov survey for The Times suggested that 71% of (employed) people ‘prefer working from home’. Academics suggest that decades of change have been condensed into two years as we have all harnessed technology, freeing ourselves from long commuting hours. There may be some cost advantages but there are downsides too, for culture, training and career development opportunities.

We need to find better ways of balancing work and home life, across all practice areas. It is also important to secure the right balance between working remotely and in person. The Lord Chief Justice’s recent message on remote attendance in Crown Courts is a step in the right direction. It contains valuable reflections likely to assist in all jurisdictions.

In our survey, 43% of female barristers said they had experienced some form of bullying, harassment, or discrimination and this increased to more than half of female barristers in criminal practice (54%). Nearly six in ten (58%) Black and Asian women barristers have experienced bullying and harassment at work or online. The contrast with White men (15%) is telling. The Bar Council continues to focus on recording, reporting, and preventing all forms of inappropriate behaviour at work. We have an anonymous reporting tool called Talk to Spot where barristers can log an incident. The individual will receive an email asking what action they would like to be taken. Many choose not to take it further but are relieved they have been able to do something. This information enables the Bar Council to identify where problems are most acute.

The Bar Council’s Insider Guide to Life at the Bar is aimed at helping young barristers access support to develop their careers and it guides chambers on their approach. The Bar Council also supports mentoring programmes and schemes linked to practice development, access to work, sponsorship, and wellbeing.

At a recent event marking the Opening of the Hong Kong Legal Year, I was struck by the universal concern of Bar leaders from around the world about the effect of the pandemic on their young lawyers.

Every chambers will have examples of many talented women who entered the profession with enthusiasm and ambition but who have left too soon. We can ill afford to lose more women. However progressive your chambers may be, it is always worth asking if it can do more.