For International Women's Day 2022, Zoe Chapman and Kitan Ososami believe there is still more work to be done.

This year’s International Women's Day theme is ‘Break the Bias’, inviting us to imagine and strive for a gender-equal world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination, in which difference is valued and celebrated. Whilst it is a day to recognise and celebrate the achievements of women in our communities and across the world, it must also be a day to take heed of the challenges and barriers that remain, prohibiting us from achieving true gender equality.  

This year, a record number of women have been appointed as Queen’s Counsel. We can acknowledge the significance of this and what it represents for women to reach the upper ranks of a profession that initially excluded them altogether, especially in the 100th year since Dr Ivy Williams made history as the first woman to be called to the Bar of England and Wales. However, triumphs such as this shouldn’t distract us from issues such as the gender pay gap alongside workplace bullying and harassment, both compounded if you are a woman of Black or ethnic minority heritage, as highlighted by the Bar Council in the Race at the Bar report.

To ‘Break the Bias’ at the Bar, we encourage all to listen and learn. The almost bi-annual debate about whether a 17th Century horsehair wig should continue to be a mandatory component of court attire for Crown Court advocates has recently reared its head. The commentary on ‘legal Twitter’ surrounding this issue discloses an apparent unwillingness in some quarters to listen and understand how Afro hair and the way it is styled is incompatible with wearing the wig comfortably. Clinging on to traditions without critically analysing how they impact communities within the profession will stop us from achieving the inclusive, diverse world IWD invites us to imagine.  

A profession steeped in tradition, incapable of adjustment or accommodation, is a daunting one for those who enter it from a ‘non-traditional’ background and it is not lost on us how that often-used phrase signals the trouble that lies ahead for those of us it applies to. Dismissing genuine concerns doesn’t paint the Bar in a positive light. Young people observing may get the impression that the Bar is hostile to change. This could indirectly undermine all the excellent outreach work generously undertaken by the Inns, Chambers, and other organisations.  

To ‘Break the Bias’, we must caution against complacency. There seems to be a tendency, when, for example, a woman of Black heritage reaches the upper echelons of our profession, to hold them up as ‘proof’ that the barriers they faced en route exist no more. Rather than viewing her lone status as a sad indictment of a system which overwhelmingly excludes people who do not fit the mould, the fact that she has been so successful seems to lead us to assume that equality has finally been achieved.

Alternatively, her success may be put down to ‘tokenism’. For some, it is inconceivable that someone who does not meet their narrow definition of barrister, or judge, could have achieved that position through the exercise of their skills and qualities. Some feel this about themselves – often referred to as ‘impostor syndrome’. We must continue efforts to normalise a concept of what a barrister (or a judge) is that encompasses a diverse range of characteristics and qualities.  

To ‘Break the Bias’, we must redouble our efforts to address the issues causing the female exodus from the self-employed Bar which begins shortly after entry. One factor behind this is how inhospitable the Bar can be for primary caregivers, the majority of whom are women. In a recent CBA-commissioned survey of the day-to-day issues experienced by barristers in the Crown Court (to which around a third of its membership responded), only 10% agreed that, in relation to listing practices, allowances were made for caring or childcare responsibilities. One respondent noted that there was “absolutely no interest in whether advocates have childcare or caring responsibilities and no recognition of how difficult it is for advocates to raise these matters.”

The Criminal Bar is increasingly concerned with shining an interrogatory light on its own attitudes and practices to make itself more diverse, more accessible, and ultimately more reflective of the society it serves. However, although the Criminal Bar is amongst the more diverse sections of the profession, in terms of gender, race and class, it would be naïve to think this absolves it from criticism or further work.

There is still much work to be done in terms of proper transparency around entry and progression within the profession, equal pay and fair allocation of work, unconscious bias, and anti-racism training. So many have said this before us and identifying the issues alone will not achieve equality.

To ‘Break the Bias’, we need less talk and more action.

Zoe Chapman is a barrister at Red Lion Chambers and Kitan Ososami is a pupil barrister.

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