Women's forums: self-indulgence or self-preservation?

Women's handsNichola Higgins assesses the role of women’s forums in achieving equality within and retaining women in the Bar.

“I’m not sure I approve of women’s lawyers forums,” was Mrs Justice Gloster’s opening gambit as she delivered the key note speech at the second Middle Temple Women’s Forum on 4 October 2012. “...Or women’s networking groups…Does it achieve anything? Or does it betray an unjustified lack of confidence in our own status and in what we have achieved? Why do we need them?”


She highlighted the dichotomy between the different views attached to events aimed at promoting women and their careers. On the one hand, women’s forums might be viewed as capable of empowering women and promoting their careers, providing an alternative to male-orientated networking events such as golf days or an evening in the pub - an acknowledgement that this profession has not yet shed the trappings of its male dominated history. On the other, there are those who view such events as meaningless and largely unnecessary.

Why do we need women’s forums?

To answer that, the first question to pose is: is there a problem? As Dame Elizabeth pointed out, this is not a country where the rights of women to work are non-existent or overridden. In addition, few would argue with the proposition that those individuals who represent clients in court must come from the widest possible cross section of society, representing the broad spectrum of their backgrounds.

But that ideal is not yet a reality. 51% of the population is female but the gender make-up of the Bar is not split evenly between the sexes. While 44% of new tenants are female, only about 34% of all practising barristers and around 11% of Queen’s Counsel are women.

An analysis of the gender make-up of the bench reveals even starker statistics. There is, and only ever has been, one woman in the Supreme Court. At the moment no woman is a Head of Division, and only 10.5% (4 out of 38) of Court of Appeal judges, 15.5% of High Court judges, and 17.1% of circuit judges, are women.

These are signs of an exodus of female barristers in early and mid career. Attracting women to the Bar is not currently an issue but retention of women certainly is – a point being addressed by a committee set up by the Council of the Inns of Court, the Bar Retention Working Group.

The number of women in the judiciary is similar to the number sitting on executive boards and those occupying senior positions in other professions. But that is a poor excuse for complacency. Such an attitude would do vast disservice to those who came to the Bar before us in defiance of society’s prevailing attitude to women. What message would waiting for society to evolve send to legal professions worldwide in societies that do not recognise equality for women?

Women have made huge strides but these statistics should look better. Now that entry to the profession is balanced, there should not be such a shortage of women competing for top positions as judges. And why is the female attrition rate so high?

We know that child-rearing responsibilities play a significant part. But that is, according to Dame Elizabeth, the free choice that many women lawyers make to bring up their children themselves. Too few are prepared to delegate child-care to full time or part time alternatives. Perhaps, she suggested, some women are simply too comfortably well off to need to work.

It was agreed by those present that women doing publicly funded work are at the sharp end of this tale. Full time child care is a fanciful luxury, and as legal aid cutbacks continue, the number of women remaining at the publicly funded Bar post childbirth will decrease. That will have a knock-on effect on the numbers who apply for judiciary, and if that indeed happens, the cuts will have a tragically adverse effect on diversity at the Bar and on the bench.

As to whether sexism plays a part at the Bar, Dame Elizabeth considered not. In her view, success at the Bar and in the judiciary depends on enthusiasm, brains, application and luck. But comments from the audience revealed different experiences. Others felt that sexism has a secretive but constant presence, resulting in women having to fight harder for work.

How do we solve the problem?

The problem with the retention of women can only be resolved if the reasons are investigated, identified and addressed. This is the work of the Retention Working Group as highlighted by Professor Dawn Oliver, the immediate past Treasurer of Middle Temple. She informed the forum that the Bar Council is in negotiations with premises to set up a Bar Nursery and information about child care is now on its website. Other ideas being considered include holding CPD events at family friendly times, having crèche arrangements for weekend events, establishing standards of good practice in chambers and inserting requirements into the kitemark schemes to ensure allowances are made for difficulties encountered by women.

However, what does not appear to be an acceptable solution is the notion of compulsory quotas for the judiciary. As Dame Elizabeth put it, judges have to be appointed on merit and merit alone, to do otherwise is not only an appalling threat to independence and the rule of law but also wholly insulting to women lawyers. There are alternatives to this rather crude and potentially damaging stick, such as training initiatives to encourage women back to work or clerks dedicated to promoting the interests of those who have returned to work after a leave of absence.

The forum concluded with an informative question and answer session consisting of a panel of both barristers and chambers chief executives dealing with “Modern clerking, promoting your practice”. The key messages for those taking a career break were communication with one’s clerk as well as realistic expectations and honesty about when a barrister will not be available.

Being realistic about flexibility is also important. Restricting travel to far-flung courts elicited mixed responses from the panel, ranging from “it’s the barristers’ choice to progress their career how they wish to”, to “yes but you may well miss out on a source of work”, and “I would not have given my clerk the impression that I was anything else but fully committed to the work”.

The panel’s reaction to requests from a solicitor for a male barrister over a female barrister was encouraging. It was plain from all sides that such requests are not tolerated.

The fair distribution of work policies, introduced by the new Equality and Diversity Rules, should, if properly applied, make a real difference in this area. Blackstone Chambers has taken a lead by also introducing a fair access to training policy. The new rules also require chambers to:

  • have a flexible working policy
  • use fair and objective selection criteria
  • have the right to return to work after a year’s parental leave.

Whatever your view, there is certainly a demand for events aimed at women. This event, like the first Middle Temple Women’s forum, was well attended and well received and as a result two such events will be held each year as the Inn join forces with Inner Temple to create a Temple Women’s Forum to which all members of any Inn are welcome.

As Catherine Quinn, Under-Treasurer of Middle Temple explained, these events are “about bringing women professionals together so that they can support each other, help each other practically, inspire each other, and debate issues of interest together and generate ideas”. Women’s forums may not be a panacea, but given that there are no easy answers to what is a multi-faceted problem, perhaps they are not a bad place to start.

Nichola Higgins, Doughty Street Chambers

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