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 nine: two silks and seven 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. However, only 31% of self employed barristers over 15 years call and only 14.8% of all QCs are women.
On the Western Circuit only 21% of court judges – from DJ’s to Heads of Division – are women (even lower than the national average of 29%). A snapshot: of the 38 judges sitting on criminal cases across the Western Circuit on the 13th November 2018, only 4 were women (including two High Court judges).
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.
We have had our successes and a small improvement in the figures is evident. In 2018 the Western Circuit gained 4 more female judges and 2 more female QC’s, including WCWF steering group member Jo Martin QC who spoke about the importance of the support she had received from the WCWF in an interview with her local paper.
WCWF is proud to have set up the first Circuit-based mentoring scheme, which is run by Selena Plowden. Every female barrister on the Western Circuit under 10 years call has been allocated a female barrister over 10 years call as a mentor. That is about 70 pairs.
Circuiteers over 10 years call were invited to volunteer to be mentors, and we had such an enthusiastic response we had a surplus of mentors. Mentees were not asked to put themselves forward, but, rather, were allocated a mentor and invited to withdraw from the scheme if they did not welcome it. We matched younger women with a mentor in the same practice area, in different chambers but in the same town where possible.
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.
“Being a woman at the bar presents a unique set of challenges, and having access to a more experienced female member of the bar for advice, who has undoubtedly encountered the same challenges as you, is an invaluable resource. Seeking out this advice alone can be difficult without knowing where to look or having guidance as to how to go about it; there can still be a stigma attached to raising concerns about gender inequality and individuals are often, understandably, reluctant to do so. That’s why the WCWF is such an important scheme – it provides women with an easily accessible resource for guidance and advice, but also promotes a new way of thinking about women’s roles at the bar. I have been lucky enough to be able to seek guidance from a more senior female member of the bar, and received not only sound, practical advice; but also the incentive to create a working environment that promotes gender equality and to motivate others to take a zero-tolerance approach to gender bias at work. Dialogue is the most important way of creating and sustaining change, and the WCWF mentoring scheme provides a forum for this to happen.”
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.
“I have already struck up a relationship I would not have had with a junior member of the Bar from another set. It is great to have the chance to hear how life is for the those in their first few years of practise. It is different to how it was when I started out but more than that I think I had just forgotten what it was like to start out at the Bar. I feel we have already exchanged some useful thoughts on how and when to go about applying to rise through the grades and I think she will be encouraged to have a go at filling out the forms and taking me up on my offer to read them through and trying to help her present herself as well as she can. Although there will no doubt be many months when no active mentoring occurs I hope that my Mentee will feel supported by knowing she can ring me up at any time.”
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.
“One of the greatest benefits about being at the self-employed Bar is the fact that one can enjoy the flexibility that comes with being self-employed. However, that very benefit can, at times, be incredibly isolating. No matter how supportive your Chambers, with everyone enjoying a busy practice, which on Circuit, particularly in the civil arena, incorporates a fair amount of travel, weeks can go by without a proper conversation with another member of the Bar. We have no line managers looking after our progress and looking out for our welfare and, when one experiences the professional upheaval associated with a career break such as maternity leave, it is easy to return to the profession and simply feel adrift. The mentoring scheme is incredibly important because, since another member of the Bar has indicated a willingness to act as a mentor and is assigned to you, one instantly feels less guilty (for want of a better word) about bothering that person and taking time away from their working day. Coupled with that is the benefit of enjoying a relationship with a barrister outside your own chambers, thereby avoiding the need to ‘sugar coat’ the situation and save face in front of colleagues. “
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.
Join us for our conference to celebrate International Women’s Day: ‘Women in Law: Support, Retention and Progression’ on 8th March 2019.
In the lead-up to the conference, we have launched an essay competition for undergraduate and postgraduate law students studying and training in Bristol, Exeter and Plymouth. This is an exciting opportunity with a great prize for the winner. Please read here for more information and check the rules before entering. Please email email@example.com if you have any questions.
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We really enjoyed meeting Western Circuit women barristers at our January Drinks events in Bristol, Plymouth and Winchester. We look forward to hosting similar events in the future. Thank you in particular to Guildhall Chambers for sponsoring our Bristol event and Devon Chambers for hosting the Plymouth event.
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 can, and are happy to, provide you with personal, free, expert and confidential advice on all competency-based applications including assistance with forms and interviews. We can put you in touch with silks and judges if you would like to know more about any role you are considering. Please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email Kate Brunner QC direct.
The WCWF is committed to eradicating harassment at the Bar. Please contact us at email@example.com about any issue.