Should allowances be made for women seeking to practise at the Bar?

Women in Law


In 2014, the Bar Council commissioned research to establish the progress women were making at the Bar and to model when, based on current trends, the Bar might achieve gender balance.

Depressingly, whilst the research established there has been a clear movement towards gender equality at Call to the Bar, the research also established that on current trends the practising Bar will never achieve overall gender balance. The conclusion formed is that this is because women have a lower propensity to move from Call to practice and a higher attrition rate once in practice.

“Snapshot – the experience of self employed women at the bar” forms part of the presentation of that research. This overview has the potential to be a useful document with good quality data to back it up. However, the picture that greets you when you open the said document is that of Chairman of the Bar Alistair MacDonald QC and this is where it starts to unravel.


Alistair MacDonald QC is an extremely competent and well respected member of the Bar. This is no reflection on him personally. But I don’t think it would be unfair to describe Alistair MacDonald QC as a middle aged white man. And yet, here is his picture, a full A4 colour profile, which looms large at the beginning of this document about the working lives of women. It sets a certain tone. It is a bit like when you go to a talk on diversity and find an all white, male panel of speakers talking about ‘women’s issues’ (for anyone who has not seen the work of ‘congrats you have an all male panel’ on Tumblr, I highly recommend it).

And it is a shame, because what is a useful piece of qualitative and quantitative research into the working lives of women at the Bar is packaged less as a piece about talented, intelligent, hardworking professional lawyers, who are also women; and more as a piece about mothers and carers, who also happen to have a job at the Bar.

I should say at this point not only am I a member of the Bar, I am also a woman and a mother of two small children. So I do appreciate the work that is being done to look at why, when I enter the profession I have as many female colleagues as male ones, but by the time I’m 22 years in, I will be outnumbered by four to one. That is, of course, if I’m not one of the women who leave.

I also appreciate the focus on the impact that having a child may have on my working life. What I don’t appreciate is the fact that the only substantive survey about my under represented gender in this wonderful profession focuses heavily on that single aspect of women’s lives in a way that men simply don’t experience.tumblr

Alistair MacDonald QC, when discussing the research, suggests that the appointments panel that decides which barristers become QCs should “make allowances” for women barristers who might have accrued less experience by the time they want to take silk because they have had time off to raise children.

At this point I can’t help but draw a comparison between myself and my husband. My husband is a teacher and when he took (an almost equal) amount of parental leave to look after our two children so I, as the higher earner (despite being a family practitioner, who traditionally earn less than other areas of the profession, but where gender equality is better represented) could go back to work. No ‘allowances’ were made for him. He was praised by his colleagues. What a wonderful thing for him to do! Yet for women there is talk of ‘allowances’.

Interestingly, the data revealed that 57% of women at the Bar with children were primary carers compared to just 4% of fathers at the Bar. That also means that 43% of women at the Bar either did not have children and/or were not primary carers. I wonder how relevant the analysis of this research feels to them? When will we stop talking about women as mothers and carers and start talking about them as women?

We are not the only industry that under-represents women. For instance, there are far more men called John leading the UK’s biggest companies than women, according to a Guardian namecheck of the FTSE 100 that shows the starkness of the gender divide at the top of the corporate world.

And comparisons can be made with the corporate world. It takes a good 20 years to get a CEO trained up and in place. Not that dissimilar a marker for judicial title or silk. In the next 20 years it would be good if we can present analysis of the data less in terms of women as carers and more as whole individuals who need support, training and so forth to close the gender gap. I for one do not want to worry about whether an ‘allowance’ will be made for when I decide to take time off for my children, or to be pitted against some special other category of woman who decide not to have children or take time off.

*Louise Desrosiers is a ‎member of The Feminist Lawyers’ Society.

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