On 8th March 2018 International Women’s Day will celebrated around the world. This year’s theme is #PressforProgress. The World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report findings are that gender parity is still over 200 years away. Across the world progress is being made towards equality, but more is needed in every sphere – and so we ask the question: How do we #PressforProgress for women at the bar? How far have we come and what still needs to be done?
Almost 96 years ago, in May 1922, Dr Ivy Williams became the first woman called to the bar of England and Wales. She became the first woman to teach law at a British university. In November of that same year Helena Normanton became the second woman to be called, and the first to practice as a barrister in England and Wales – a profession that has its origins in the 13th Century. They were the early pioneer women of the profession, but nearly fifty years on women were still having to break boundaries.
As recently as the 1970s attitudes were very different than they are today. We spoke to recently retired 2 Bedford Row founding member, Deborah Champion, who was called in 1970. She described how different things were when she started her career:
‘My generation of women seeking to establish a career at the Bar faced attitudes that would be unthinkable today. Many sets of chambers had never had a female tenant and quite openly let it be known that they would not even contemplate a female pupil. Others who had caved in to pressure and taken on a ‘statutory woman’ indicated that that was as far as they would go.
Women were discriminated against at all stages. There was no formal application procedure for pupillage and women were frequently confronted with flat refusals even to be granted an interview, sometimes with such spurious reasons as: ‘We don’t have facilities for women in the building’ or ‘Having a young woman about could cause distraction or even conflict among the existing male tenants’ (yes, I promise you that was actually said to one of my contemporaries).
Reasons for not giving tenancies to women that I heard included ‘We know that women usually leave once they’ve found a husband and you certainly couldn’t continue in practice if you have children.’
It didn’t end there because even if one managed to become a tenant, no woman, however talented, could expect to progress as fast as her male counterparts. There was a culture in criminal sets that highly lucrative junior briefs went to men. I was told by both the clerk at the time and by senior members of chambers that this was because men would be expected to support families, and were therefore more in need than women – presumably because it was still thought that we were only really working for pin money!
How things have changed.’
Things have indeed changed for the better. Deborah had a hugely successful career as a criminal barrister and sat as a Crown Court Recorder. She was one of those who paved the way for others to follow.
We have seen the women of our chambers become Recorders, District and Crown Court Judges, and a former Chairman of the Bar and High Court Judge in Dame Maura McGowan. 2 Bedford Row are proud to have three female Queen’s Counsel in chambers and look forward to there being many more in years to come.
We asked women in chambers to tell us how they feel about the situation at the bar today. One senior junior told us:
‘In our set, I don’t perceive any sexism or discrimination in relation to women when they are being considered for pupillage and/or tenancy and the statistics bear this out.
I think we try to be supportive of each other whilst retaining a healthy sense of humour. The new female judiciary are better at being supportive and ever since I have been in Chambers I have worked under and alongside women who haven’t tried to pull the drawbridge up behind them.
I think there are more general problems at the criminal bar in general with women being pigeon holed into particular areas of work and a problem with retention at the junior end. The job is not family friendly and we must work on making it more so for everyone.’
The impact of the way we work upon family life is not a problem that only affects women, but it does so disproportionately. At present, there are four female tenants in Chambers (including both authors of this article) who have children under the age of three. All are able to point to clearly identifiable factors that make a huge difference to our ability to juggle work and family life; these include the variability of court sitting times, the amount of travel involved for some hearings, a lack of flexibility at times in court listing, and how much last minute preparation is involved in particular cases.
Women are excelling in every area of legal practice, but there are still unfortunate attitudes that pervade and should be consigned to the past, along with the obvious discrimination that was commonplace forty years ago. Whilst writing this article the following are all incidents that we have either witnessed ourselves, or been told about by colleagues:
Incidents such as these should not still be occurring in 2018 and they demonstrate that there is still much work to be done. We still need to #PushforProgress if things are to continue to improve. Gender parity at the criminal bar cannot wait 200 years.