Women’s problems

When I joined Seven Bedford Row 25 years ago, I knew exactly how many female tenants there were. That I no longer have the figure at my fingertips suggests that times have changed.

There are 22 women tenants out of a total of 78. The ratio of women to men at 25 years’ call and below is 1:3. Under 10 years’ call there are as many women as men.

Being a woman is just not an issue. None of our youngsters will ever hear a clerk deal with a prospective booking thus: “I’m afraid I’ve only got a lady barrister available… oh yes, of course, if you’re sure you don’t mind…” – as I did.

That said, it is inescapable that women are underrepresented in some areas of the bar – commercial being the starkest example. I doubt this is because women are not interested in the area. What is required is a determined effort by the heads of chambers and their clerking teams to ensure that the best talent is attracted to chambers. Experience across all sections of the bar is that where that is done rigorously, the numbers of women increase.

I am told that in crime there is a tendency to pigeonhole women into particular areas of work such as sex cases and child cruelty, whereas armed robbery and drugs remain male-dominated. What is to be done? First, chambers need to monitor to whom briefs are going and why. The Crown Prosecution Service has a strong diversity policy that should militate against such pigeonholing. If the policies are not effective, then the bar should be asking why.

And so to work-life balance. Drawing on my own experience, the ability of a mother to continue to practise at anything like the level of her male counterparts depends on, first, a partner who is willing to share responsibility for keeping the household on an even keel. Sort that out before the first baby arrives.

Second, maintain good communication with your clerk and your head of team or chambers. Discuss with them how long you think you will take off for maternity leave. When you come back be clear with the clerk about the work you are able to do and when. Get the clerk’s support and that of your head of team or chambers. It is better for them if you are an enthusiastic and productive member of the team rather than a resentful and unwilling participant.

Be realistic – it is not easy to run a practice and maintain a normal home life. For a few years you will have no time for anything other than work and family. But the time will come – perhaps sooner than you would like – when your children are not thrilled at the prospect of spending every waking moment with you, and your chambers will be only too pleased to see more of you.
Kate Thirlwall, head of chambers, Seven Bedford Row