“…better representation and advancement of women barristers on the Western Circuit.”
The Western Circuit Women’s Forum was set up in 2015 with three simple aims:
Why were we set up? Because much like the rest of the country we have a stark imbalance of the sexes in the senior ranks and it is a serious problem. The Bar Council Momentum Measures Report of 2015 concluded that on current patterns equality could never be achieved “The attrition is such that it would require a very long period of substantial imbalance in favour of women at Call to achieve a balance of women in practice.”
The WCWF does not require membership, but welcomes participation and ideas from all Circuiteers and has a steering group of six: one judge, one silk and four juniors in different disciplines, different calls and from all corners of the Circuit.
The WCWF runs social, networking and training events, has commissioned research projects and coordinates lobbying on issues that affect women barristers. We liaise with other organisations such as the Bar Council and CBA about policy and working practices, and with the QC Secretariat and Judicial Appointments Commission to ensure we can provide help with career progression. Importantly we run the Circuit-based mentoring scheme for young women barristers.
The WCWF is funded by the Western Circuit and the Inns of Court. Administrative support is provided by Albion Chambers, Bristol.
Women have made up 50% of women called to the Bar for the last 17 years or so. And yet, only 29% of self employed barristers over 15 years call are women, and only 13% are QC’s.
On the Western Circuit only 18% of all judges – from DJ’s to Heads of Division – are women. A snapshot: of the 41 judges sitting on criminal cases across the Western Circuit on the 14th August 2017, only 2 were women.
There is no trickle up effect; women are still leaving on masse. This cannot simply be attributed to women ‘choosing’ not to work: the employed Bar boasts far better representation of women. There are clearly factors embedded in self employed practice which make it difficult for some women to remain. The Bar Council’s 2015 Report on Creating a Diverse Profession gives a fuller breakdown of the figures.
The rationale for the scheme is based on the Bar Council’s Snapshot Survey in 2015 which identified that many of the challenges facing women barristers were gender-specific. The Snapshot recommended both mentoring and providing highly-visible female role models. Mentoring in the workplace has a proven track record in various sectors and especially in industries where there is a gender imbalance, and recent research provides evidence of the link between lower levels of stress and mentoring among barristers (Wellbeing at the Bar). We may appear to be awash with mentoring schemes, but only a small minority of barristers have a mentor, and it is particularly difficult on the far reaches of the Circuit to access support and events which are based in London. Thus apart from the Circuit-centric approach, two elements of the scheme set it apart from other mentoring programmes.
Firstly: after much debate we decided to involve only women mentors. WCWF recognises that many women have been superbly mentored by senior men and the scheme is not intended to be divisive or discourage such relationships. However, despite the surprising lack of data available to show why women leave, it is incontrovertible that one of the major causes is the difficulty of combining primary caring responsibilities with a career at the Bar which is known to affect women more than men. Allocating women mentors will make it easier for young women barristers to access advice about issues relating to primary care-giving/ parental leave, as well as ensuring that each young woman has a senior female role model.
Secondly: we took the decision that automatic allocation was the best approach. We did this become some women in focus groups conducted for the Snapshot project reported that they felt that they would be stigmatised as ‘pushy’ if they volunteered for any mentoring or career-progression scheme. We felt that an opt-out mentoring scheme was likely to result in higher take-up, and, thus far, we are heartened to report that feedback has been very positive. Mentors have spoken of a sense of camaraderie and pleasure at meeting junior members of the Bar outside of their chambers. Mentees have expressed how important it is just to know that a Senior member of the Bar is willing to act as a mentor, how it will help with motivation in returning from maternity leave and a sense of being able to talk about issues without feeling like a burden. Only one person under 10 years call withdrew from the scheme, but only because she had significant experience as a solicitor: she became a mentor.
We are running a longitudinal survey with Portsmouth University to research the benefits of this mentoring scheme. Please do respond to the survey so that we can develop and improve the scheme. Please get in touch if you haven’t been allocated a mentor, would like to be a mentor or have any difficulties with the scheme.
Since then the WCWF has organised informal networking events in Bristol and, with the kind assistance of Mrs Justice May, at the Cornwall lodgings for women circuiteers to have a chance to meet and exchange ideas and concerns.
The WCWF has published a number of papers reflecting the issues that impact upon and effect Women at the Bar.
The WCWF has also responded to a number of important issues:
We have had articles published in Counsel Magazine.
We invite any woman Circuiteer to get in touch with us if they are considering applying for any career progression opportunity – from applying to the CPS Panel for the first time to a judicial appointment. We will be able to put you in touch with a senior woman barrister or judge who can help with career planning, QC or judicial applications or dealing with competency based applications.