Gender inequality at the senior Bar

Gender inequality at the senior Bar

By Brie Stevens-Hoare QC 

On 12 March 2014 Lord Neuberger gave the Rainbow Lecture on Diversity. The lecture concluded with an explicit reference to the duty of all those involved in the legal profession and judiciary to improve the inclusiveness of the legal world.

Neuberger articulated the idea that the role of the legal profession and judiciary in society makes the achievement of comprehensive diversity in the sector particularly significant. Those in society who see themselves as under-represented or even absent from its key sectors are alienated. The legal professions are feeder professions for the judiciary. They and the judiciary are perceived as powerful in our society and key to the Rule of Law. If sections of society are alienated from those professions, confidence in and, to an extent, the legitimacy of the legal system and Rule of Law can be undermined.

Continued absence

At entry level to the legal profession there has now been a period of about 20 years of gender equality. That is significant progress for one strand of diversity. However, those 20 years of entry level gender balance have not translated into anything like a gender balance in the silks appointed each year, the senior partners of large firms or the judiciary, or in fact a proper balance of other strands of diversity. Small improvements have been made with those senior appointments but the progress has been slow and largely confined to gender.

Many now recognise the huge loss of female talent that takes place at the Bar and among solicitors. A continued absence of women and other lawyers from different backgrounds at the top of the ladder after so many years is likely to discourage those looking to step onto the ladder or those wondering whether to continue to climb it.

How to change

The available research points to a need to address the subtle causes of the attrition of female talent and the tendency in the absence of change to keep copying the existing model. Those causes are extensive but include the unconscious behaviours of those who are already in senior positions, the reticence of developing diverse talent, the procedures used and the cultures in our professional and commercial work places.

Other research also shows a significant reluctance by women to put themselves forward for promotion until some years after their colleagues had considered they should. This is to be contrasted with men who often put themselves forward before their colleagues suggest they should. It is likely most practitioners know someone who is better than they believe themselves to be; someone who should be seeking to advance their career but is not doing so, and in many cases it will not be a white, privately educated male.

For an extended version of this article on New Law Journal click here.

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