“…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 nine: one judge, two silks (one of whom sits as a Recorder), and seven juniors (two of whom are Deputy District Judges) 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 women barristers under 10 years’ call. 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. Lord Chancellor, David Gauke and the Senior President of Tribunals, Sir Ernest Ryder gave keynote speeches on the importance of diversity in the legal profession in late 2018.
The 2018 judicial diversity statistics show the South West with the lowest female representation at 21% lagging behind other areas. Representation was highest in the South East at 39%.
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 3 more female QC’s, including WCWF steering group members Selena Plowden QC and Jo Martin QC who spoke about the importance of the support she had received from the WCWF in an interview with her local paper.
Women also appear to be substantially underrepresented throughout the Criminal Justice System compared with males. You can read the latest MoJ statistics here.
WCWF is proud to have set up the first Circuit-based mentoring scheme, which is run by Selena Plowden QC. 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. We were very proud to have been nominated for the ‘Mentor Scheme of the Year’ award at the South West Mentoring Awards 2019.
Circuiteers over 10 years’ call were invited to volunteer to be mentors, and we had such an enthusiastic response that 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. 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 makes 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.
Career Progression, Competencies and Catch-up
Thank you to everyone who attended our Zoom event on 5 June 2020. Thank you to our guest speaker, Kate Brunner QC, Leader of the Western Circuit and former Chair of the WCWF. We enjoyed chatting with everyone afterwards and hearing about the latest concerns of practitioners as we start a cautious return to court.
Poonam Bhari, a family barrister at 3PB, sent us some lovely feedback afterwards:
“I just wanted to email you to say how great I think the WCWF meetings are. In a way I am glad they are by zoom, which has enabled someone like me to be able to participate.
Today was the second time I have joined and I am really impressed by the camaraderie, goodwill, encouragement, leadership and support that you and others have shown.
You provide a safe space for women to talk about what we are experiencing and to share ideas and for that I thank you.
In my 20 years at the Bar as you can imagine I have attended a lot of meetings but I have found the WCWF meetings to be incredibly supportive and the open invitation by members to provide guidance and support to others is very welcome.”
Don’t forget that you can email us at email@example.com at any time with your concerns, for careers related advice or just to let us know how you’re doing. We want to help if we can. Stay safe and stay tuned for our next event!
Becoming healthy, wealthy and wise? The role of mentoring in the legal profession
We we were delighted to have Dr Emma Jones join us for our WCWF Zoom Party on 24th April. We had a great turnout with many concerns being raised about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on our practices. This prompted us to write our latest paper: ‘Back to the Bar: The Impact of Covid-19’.
Dr Emma Jones is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Sheffield. Before that she was Teaching Director at The Open University Law School and prior to entering academia she was a solicitor in private practice. Emma’s research focuses on the role of emotions and wellbeing in legal education and the legal profession, including aspects such as digital lawyering, legal culture and mentoring. She spoke to us about the role of mentoring in the legal profession and how it might help us to become healthy, wealthy and wise.
The Association of Women Barristers: Rachael Goodall attends roundtable discussions
On 30th November 2018, the AWB held roundtable discussions on harassment and bullying. Chaired by HHJ Kaly Kaul QC and Lynne Townley, the discussions resulted in an important report in late 2019: ‘In The Age of ‘Us Too?’: Moving Towards a Zero-Tolerance Attitude to Harassment and Bullying At the Bar‘. Rachael Goodall attended the original discussions on behalf of the WCWF and was impressed by the progressive talks leading to five key recommendations for change:
WCWF Wellbeing Events 20th November 2019
We had a fantastic turnout for our Wellbeing Events on 20th November 2019. The CEO of Law Care, Elizabeth Rimmer gave an insightful and well received talk in Winchester; those in Bristol enjoyed a talk from a Psychologist on Professional Wellbeing and those in Exeter were crying with laughter with the wonderful Sue Haswell guiding them through some laughter yoga. It was lovely to meet with everyone and enjoy a catch up over some drinks and nibbles. We are grateful to all our sponsors and supporters: 12 College Place; College Chambers; Guildhall Chambers and Magdalen Chambers. Stay tuned for our next event!
WCWF Social May 2019
We held three separate events across Circuit on 16th May 2019. Western Circuiteers relaxed at a garden party hosted by Her Honour Judge Miller QC in Winchester; caught up over drinks at The Severnshed, Bristol and enjoyed drinks and nibbles at The City Gate Hotel, Exeter. The events were well attended and we are extremely grateful to all Chambers who provided sponsorship including Colleton Chambers, Devon Chambers and Walnut House Chambers.
International Women’s Day Conference
We are extremely grateful to everyone who joined us for our conference to celebrate International Women’s Day: ‘Women in Law: Support, Retention and Progression’ on 8th March 2019. You can find a full write-up about the day here. We received some incredible feedback and look forward to organising similar future events:
“I really can’t thank WCWF enough for this conference. I have just come back from maternity leave after my second child, having had a gap off ill between my two children and moved from London to Bristol. So there are so many reasons not to carry on with trying to (re)build a practice at the Bar, but this conference made me feel that it would be worth it and that I must at least continue to try. It was just the right message at the right time for me, and I am really grateful.”
“The conference yesterday was fabulous, thanks so much for organising. What an impressive line up of speakers…I liked the fact that the focus was very much intersectional (or so it seemed to me), and that the themes spoke to women from all backgrounds. Looking forward to the next one!”
“It was a superb three hours packed with inspiring speakers. I though you got the time slots perfectly pitched. I was left wanting to hear even more from each and every one. So much thought had plainly gone into the range of topics you covered. In short, it was everything a successful conference should be. I listened to all the buzz around me in the audience and I know I was not alone in my huge enjoyment of the afternoon.”
In the lead-up to the conference, we launched an essay competition for undergraduate and postgraduate law students studying and training in Bristol, Exeter and Plymouth. The overall winner was Nicole Hilton, an LLB Law student at Bristol University. Congratulations Nicole! You can read her full essay here.
January Drinks 2019
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.
The WCWF together with the Education Committee of the Western Circuit successfully campaigned in 2018 to make amendments to the requirement for automatic reporting requirement for any barrister who hears of harassment. As a result the BSB has announced changes, adopting the prototype submitted by Circuit. The Western Circuit has set up the first harassment reporting scheme under the new BSB waiver rules and produced a proforma to assist other groups who wish to do the same.
On 19th May, the WCWF has published its follow-up to our previous ‘Back to the Bar’ paper. You can read ‘Back to the Bar: The Impact of Covid-19’ here. We listened to the concerns raised directly with us about the impact of Covid-19 on working practices, especially for primary carers, who are disproportionately women. In this paper, we highlight the risks and recommend practical steps to minimise them. We implore the judiciary, HMCTs and Chambers’ to Consider The Carers.
The WCWF has been in contact with many of you on Circuit and we know that there are particular difficulties faced by those with childcare or shielding responsibilities. We know that for many these difficulties will continue even after courts reopen their doors because schools will not be open and childcare will not be available – or will no longer be affordable to those who have suffered financially during the crisis. Read our Wellbeing and Finances Resource Guide here. You can find our response to the coronavirus self employment income support scheme here.
The WCWF has published a number of papers reflecting the issues that impact upon and affect Women at the Bar. Our articles, published in Counsel Magazine explain our mentoring scheme and express our views on harassment at the Bar. We welcome men to the conversation about harassment and encourage everyone to ‘Speak Up’ on this very important issue.
The WCWF Observations on Extension of Court Sitting Hours received wide circulation and you can read our latest response to Flexible Court Hours here. Our research has recently featured in the Financial Times and was a key topic in our International Women’s Day Conference.
The WCWF previously published the result of their survey on the obstacles and aids to parents returning to the Bar. The survey Back to the Bar offers recommendations on how to ensure those who wish to return, are able to return. The survey has been widely discussed featuring on Radio 4 Woman’s Hour and in an article by the WCWF for the University of Exeter.
In November 2019, the WCWF published its follow up to the Back to the Bar survey: Back to the Bar Retention and Progression After Parental Leave. You can read this very helpful guide here (only 12 pages!) and we heartily commend it to all Chambers. We are already hearing that Chambers are adopting this into their current policies for parental leave which is fantastic news.
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
The WCWF is committed to eradicating harassment at the Bar. Please contact us at email@example.com about any issue.
Need to talk to someone? Call the Western Circuit Harassment Helpline approved by the BSB as a pilot harassment support scheme. The Helpline will provide confidential advice and support to all barristers (including pupils) on the Western Circuit who have experienced any harassment or unwanted behaviour by listening to their story and providing information about their options for further action. You can also anonymously record any incidents with ‘Spot‘. Read more about Spot here.