Access and equality: why QC appointments are on the front line of gender parity

Access and equality: why QC appointments are on the front line of gender parity

The process of applying for Queens Counsel is shrouded in mystery. A closely guarded decision, those vying for the title maintain a vow of silence, only sharing their decision with a trusted clerk, friend or family. While little is known about the individuals applying for Queen’s Counsel until the final announcement is made, research has been conducted into the gender demographics of those applying. In research conducted by the Work Foundation, it was found that more work was needed to encourage applications from women, and to prevent female advocates from becoming disconnected from career progression.

While 2018 saw success for the largest number of female applicants since the competition’s inception, (30 women were appointed to Queen’s Counsel) there remains a disparity between the genders; male applicants make up both the majority of those appointed, and of those applying. The reasons for this appear to be manifold. In research commissioned by the QCA it was found that the system of application presents unique stumbling blocks for female candidates. Namely:

  • Women found it more difficult to find enough suitable cases over the last two years, especially if they had had a career break
  • Women found it more difficult to identify enough assessors, especially judicial assessors, to provide evidence of their performance
  • Women were more reluctant than male advocates to approach judicial assessors to ask if they were willing to provide an assessment of them.

A dearth in female appointments to Queen’s Counsel may at first seem an elite issue, however, the ramifications of this disparity reverberate the length and breadth of the profession, and certainly have their impacts at a grass root level. Researchers noted that ‘action to improve the representation of women amongst QCs was not just a matter for the QC appointment system. The proportion of women in practice after 15 years is only slightly above 30%, despite the fact that almost equal numbers of women and men are called to the Bar.’ Retaining female advocates is a real challenge for the bar. The QCA should be mindful of their responsibility as an elite institution to guide the way for their colleagues, and be responsive to the growing difficulties facing female practitioners. The trickle down effect of these changes will help to diminish implicit bias against women for taking time away from their careers, sending a clear message that professional value does not diminish should one choose to have a family.

To combat this issue, the research team recommended the following ‘measures to encourage women to apply for appointment as QC:

  • The number of cases required to be listed should be reduced from 12, and the period over which they can come should be increased from two to three years
  • The number of judicial assessors required should be reduced
  • Action should be taken to ensure a better gender balance on the QC Selection Panel (at present, there are seven men and three women)
  • The professional bodies should make it clear that there is no limit on the number of applicants who can be appointed each year, and that all those who meet the required standard will be recommended for appointment.’

Inducting these practices into the QC selection process will go some way towards mitigating barriers to professional development, dismantling (predominantly) male models of assessment that are in the habit of alienating women and encourage Chambers to look at their work practices to help facilitate the development of their female practitioners.

In an interview with The Times, Angela Rafferty QC expounded on the importance of helping women remain in the profession, saying: ‘we must do something to reverse the loss of female excellence at the Bar.’ This is not merely a female problem, this reflects upon the broader work culture at the Bar and calls upon male practitioners to treat their female counterparts ‘in a non-discriminatory way and vice versa’. Particularly prescient in 2019 as society continues to press for parity in maternal and paternal leave, securing the values of tolerance in the face of absence is key to safeguarding all talented professionals.

Suffering the loss of women from the profession of advocacy would be a serious blow to the judiciary. ‘Many criminal-law barristers are publicly funded and deal with the most difficult issues in society every day. The work we do in prosecuting and defending is important, and we deal with sensitive and traumatic events. Therefore, we must reflect the society we serve in all its diversity.’

While issues of gender parity remain broadly unresolved, ensuring that female practitioners are able to progress in their careers- particularly to the level QC- will enable the profession to retain its talented advocates and enable greater diversity at all levels, as men and women become cognisant that their profession values all, and are able to reach all levels of success no matter their gender or personal circumstance. 

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About the author:
Catherine is one of the Future of Law's digital editors. She graduated from Durham University with a degree in English Literature and worked at a barristers chambers before joining Lexis Nexis.