What Next? Professional mechanisms have failed to achieve equality for women barristers

25 March 2016

Harini Iyengar 

Harini Iyengar, barrister at 11 Kings Bench Walk and Greater London Assembly candidate, explains changing attitudes to sexual harassment, why equality among QCs and the judiciary feels like a 'feminist fantasy', and how male barristers want to care for their children as much as women barristers want to build their careers.

I believe it is a reflection of both our potential capabilities and our professional frustrations that three out of the eleven Women's Equality Party candidates for theGreater London Assembly elections in May 2016 are experienced women barristers: Harini Iyengar, Isabelle Parasram and Joanna Shaw.

I have put aside 16 years of professional discretion as to my political views, in order to run for public office, and that decision has been heavily influenced by my personal and professional experiences as a woman barrister.  My life has been very different from my male peers' ever since Call. 

Since 1999, I have been practising full-time as a barrister at 11KBW, whilst raising three children as a lone parent.  My expertise includes employment, equal pay, discrimination and equality, and sexual harassment cases. 

Although I have never depended on Legal Aid work, the exorbitant cost of childcare and the relentless, long-hours legal culture have been major concerns in my life, as I planned my career and my family.  In recent years, the Bar has been gathering and analysing data.  Now, everyone who cares about the profession admits that the attrition of skilled, experienced, capable women barristers, particularly from eight to 13 years' Call, is a huge problem.

In 2012, I joined the steering group of the  Temple Women's Forum as an Inner Temple representative.  I am very proud of the work which we are doing to try and retain women barristers in practice

Nevertheless, I have gradually realised that the profession alone cannot achieve equality for women at the Bar.  Since I was a pupil, the profession has modernised and the culture has changed to become more welcoming to women.  The endorsement and financial support by Middle Temple and Inner Temple of the Temple Women's Forum has had enormous significance for their members.

Attitudes towards sexual harassment, in particular, have improved dramatically.  For International Women's Day last month, the Chairman of the Bar - this year a woman, Chantal-AimĂ©e Doerries QC - issued a  statement drawing attention to the Bar Council's recent guide  Sexual harassment: information for chambers and its work to analyse the reasons for the appalling retention rates of women barristers published in  Snapshot: The Experience of Self-Employed Women at the Bar.

In my opinion, the Bar as a profession has made satisfactory and sincere attempts to achieve gender equality, and it is finally time to accept that those attempts have failed. 

The most recent Bar Council  Momentum Report says, "…notwithstanding the increasing gender balance in Called working age barristers, current trends suggest that with the present model of practice at the Bar a 50:50 gender balance among all practising barristers is unlikely ever to be achieved." 

Cuts to Legal Aid have caused long-term and irreversible damage to the pipeline of talented women barristers, since, compared to men, women are over-represented in publicly-funded practice.  In consequence, achieving gender balance among QCs and in the senior judiciary feels like a feminist fantasy, even for our grandchildren. 

As professionals and citizens, can we be sanguine and sit back for the next 50 years, hoping that equal representation between the sexes in the Supreme Court is going to happen naturally, despite all the evidence indicating the contrary? 

I urge women and men barristers to take a step back from everything we do to promote diversity as individuals, as chambers, as committees, as professional associations, and as Inns, and to ask what we can do as citizens to achieve practical change for women barristers in our lifetimes.  

The Women's Equality Party (WE) is a brand new non-partisan, collaborative party with members and registered supporters across the political spectrum, including members of other political parties.  Since it was founded just one year ago it has attracted over 45,000 members.  It is the fastest-growing party in the country.  WE have crowd-sourced our policies from our members.  In May 2016, WE will stand 17 candidates for public office in London, Wales and Scotland, including Sophie Walker for London Mayor and myself, Isabelle Parasram and Joanna Shaw for the Greater London Assembly. 

At least 600,000 UK stay-at-home parents would prefer to work if they could afford to do so; we know that figure includes women leaving the Bar.  WE will bring in Government-funded childcare for all children from nine months of age, including a voucher option for those who need more flexible childcare. 

Equal parenting and caregiving by men and women is a core objective of WE.  Research shows that men barristers want the opportunity to care for their children just as much as women barristers want the opportunity to achieve their full potential at work.  WE will restore Legal Aid for all cases involving domestic violence, and understand that access to justice is an essential component of equality. 

Equality is not a box to be ticked at the end of a report, but should pervade all aspects of our policy-making, as a profession and as a nation.  When the Bar reaches the limits of what it can accomplish as a profession, it is time to remember that we are all equal at the ballot box.

**This blog contains the personal views of Harini Iyengar and is not written on behalf of the Temple Women's Forum, 11KBW or the Women's Equality Party.**