For International Women's Day 2022, Hannah M Markham QC says that we need to ensure women from all backgrounds are nurtured, supported and retained.

International Women’s Day gives us all a chance to pause and reflect upon not only the successes and achievements of women in our profession, but also on the ongoing challenges which confront us as women at the Bar.

As a working mother, wife and daughter I have been always been aware of the very real pressures and difficulties a working barrister has on managing day-to-day commitments alongside the family demands and enjoyments which pull women in so many different and often conflicting directions.

How do we say yes to a trial 100 miles away whilst breastfeeding, or whilst needing to ensure that an aged parent is safe and secure? What of attending a marketing event when it is your turn to collect from school and make dinner, or when you have promised to read a chapter of a book to your little one that night? What happens when a judge asks overnight for written submission or an answer to a legal point? Or when papers come in late (with profuse apologies), but there is a parents’ evening or a need to visit a family member who is lonely, isolated or unwell?

The Bar is a progressive and supportive profession, yet there is still more to learn. Ongoing working groups analysing retention of women at the Bar, diversity and inclusivity are essential, as is open discussion of the issues facing us (as they have over the years). Significantly, there are those of us who have been able to achieve success and to take appointments whilst being all things to many and where we have been able to say we are proud not only of our professional success but also our personal achievements. To achieve this all round combination of work and home, is what brings balance to our lives; it is the essence of strength and happiness, and this leads to strength and focus in our working lives. It remains vital that, as leaders in the profession, we who have attained those positions can look backwards and use our voices to refocus, remind and re-evaluate from lessons learnt and to support and nurture those who come behind us.

The profession can only be better with increased diversity and inclusivity, and this means looking at ways to ensure that women from all backgrounds have access to the profession; that once in it, they are nurtured and supported and that we retain and not lose women along the way.

With the return to court post-Covid, we face more and renewed challenges. Bullying at the Bar (which can arise when we assert our requests for wellbeing balance) is something identified by the Bar Council as requiring review and reflection. This is essential. Assessing and understanding why our male colleagues are still being paid more than their female counterparts also requires attention and consideration.

In these post-‘100 years of women in law’, it is surprising what there is yet to achieve and where we have failed to learn. What is different now is that women hold roles and positions that allow them to speak out; that allow them to lead and guide and act as role models. So many (too many to name here) already do this. More need to join those that do to ensure that those who feel less able to speak up and out (and many juniors feel that way) can have a forum in which their voices are indeed heard. It is positive that the Bar Council is looking to investigate ongoing issues and difficulties and that it is open to hear and to change.

As Chair of the FLBA and of Women in Family Law, I recognise what needs to be done and will use my voice this year and into the future to secure those changes.

Hannah M Markham QC is a barrister at The 36 Group.

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