Gender and diversity at the Bar

23 July 2015

The Bar Council has today published Snapshot:The experience of self-employed women at the Bar, alongside another publication, Momentum Measures: Creating a diverse profession, which provides analysis of data on equality and diversity at the Bar.

Commenting on Momentum Measures, Sam Mercer, Head of Policy, Equality, Diversity and CSR said:

"Our report shows that we achieved an approximate 50-50 balance of men and women being called to the Bar in 2000, and that we have maintained it ever since. We also know that women are not under-represented at pupillage. In terms of ethnicity, the Bar reflects the population balance and has done for some time.

"The Bar is, therefore, successfully attracting and recruiting a diverse pool of talent. Race and gender are no barrier to getting into the profession.

"Despite success on attraction and recruitment, the research suggests that a 50-50 split between men and women practising barristers is unlikely ever to be reached on current trends. This is because our greatest challenge is the retention of women.

"The self employed nature of the profession is a significant barrier to those who wish to have a family and stay in practice and legal Aid cuts are making retention even more difficult as incomes fall and child care costs rise. This research confirms why we need to maintain our focus in this area. 

"Keeping women at the Bar has been a challenge for some time and we have put in place a number of interventions to support the retention of female barristers. We are already working on several initiatives which include expanding the Bar nursery to the circuits, extending and developing mentoring programmes to help women build and sustain their practice, and offering support and advice in managing family career breaks. In addition, the Bar Standards Board now requires chambers to have parental leave and flexible working policies."

Commenting on the snapshot report, Charmain of the Bar Alistair MacDonald QC, said:

"The Bar Council's gender research represents the first of its kind to capture some of the experiences of self-employed women in the profession and offers a valuable insight into life at the Bar for women barristers.

"As a profession, it is heartening to see we have significantly moved on in the way women are treated. However, whilst most of the examples of sexism, harassment and discrimination quoted in the report are historical, experiences of inappropriate behaviour within the profession continue to exist. Sexism, harassment and discrimination have no place in this profession and we must all work to ensure these forms of behaviour are challenged and cease forthwith.

"While there is clearly no problem in attracting women to the Bar, with women and men joining the Bar in equal numbers, the report identifies a number of new and significant challenges experienced by women working within the profession. These include being pushed into traditional 'women's practice areas' and balancing career and caring responsibilities.

"Today the main barriers for women lie in publicly-funded practice, ironically the area in which women disproportionally most practice, with cuts to legal aid and the cost and accessibility of childcare. The cuts in income make sustaining practice difficult. Such economic conditions have also discouraged women barristers from applying for Silk.

"We know also that too many women leave the Bar early. The Bar Council and in particular the Equality & Diversity and Social Mobility Committee will work hard with all who are involved in order to increase opportunities and remove barriers to prevent this loss of valuable talent.

"Despite the fact that some women had negative experiences and worked in a very challenging environment, the women who participated in this research clearly loved the Bar and wanted to suggest constructive solutions to make things better for other women in the profession.

"The positive experiences of some women also challenge the view that the Bar isn't women-friendly.

"As a profession we must do more to support and encourage women to remain at the Bar and the Bar Council has made a number of important recommendations to ensure this happens.

"Thank you to the Association of Women Barristers, and all individual women barristers who gave up their valuable time and participated in our focus groups. It is hoped this research will support continuing efforts by many barristers across all practice areas who work so hard to champion a more inclusive Bar."

Click here for a link to Momentum Measures: Creating a diverse profession, and here for a link to Snapshot:The experience of self-employed women at the Bar.


Notes to editors:

1. Further information is available from the Bar Council Press Office on 020 7222 2525 and

2. The  Bar Council represents barristers in England and Wales. It promotes:

  • The Bar's high quality specialist advocacy and advisory services

  • Fair access to justice for all

  • The highest standards of ethics, equality and diversity across the profession, and

  • The development of business opportunities for barristers at home and abroad.

The General Council of the Bar is the Approved Regulator of the Bar of England and Wales. It discharges its regulatory functions through the independent Bar Standards Board