The statistics suggest a depressing picture of sexual inequality. Of the 158 senior counsel practising at the Irish Bar, only eight are women, a mere 5 per cent.
But such figures hide a transformation in what has been a male-dominated profession. Almost 30 per cent of the 1,000 practising barristers in the Republic are now women, and the numbers entering the profession recently have been equally divided between the sexes.
Women have been winning promotion too. There is now one woman in the Irish Supreme Court, two in the High Court and another in the Circuit Court. In addition, the profession's best known woman senior counsel, Mary Robinson, confounded the pundits by becoming the Republic's first female president.
Progress can be reported in the equality battle. However, the demands of motherhood and child rearing, plus domestic and financial pressures, have taken a heavy toll on women barristers, forcing many of them to opt out. The result has been to create an imbalance at the top of the profession, with a relatively small pool of experienced women counsels from which promotions can be made.
Bar Council chair James Nugent worries that the success of women could exacerbate this situation. “Some of the new talent coming into the profession has been exceptional,” he says. “The women silks appointed are absolutely first class and the women promoted to the bench have made a big impression.
“My fear is that with two more appointments to be made to the High Court and seven to the Circuit Court, there will be a temptation to follow that success by picking off more of our best women. That would be a setback. It would reinforce the present imbalance by reducing the number of experienced women counsel even further.”
Discrimination is not a problem, says Nugent. “I've never had any complaints about prejudice, and I've sat on committees for the past four years that would have dealt with them. The difference between here and the UK is that we are a small community working out of the law library. Everyone knows what is going on and there is a great sense of collegiate support.”
Ten to 15 years ago, he says, some clients did not want to be represented by women counsel. “I experienced such discrimination when I was on circuit, but that has all changed. Fifteen years ago, who would have thought we would have a woman president or a woman Minister for Justice?”
The Bar Council, he claims, has been ahead of public opinion. “We had a woman chair, Mella Carroll, now a judge of the High Court, back in the 1970s. She was the first woman to hold the position.”
Nugent, a senior counsel, says women face a tougher struggle to succeed at the Bar because of “the biological factor”. But he adds: “Today's young women are much better able to cope with the pressures.”
Bar Council member Oonagh McCrann, a mother of three and a rising junior counsel, is one such woman. Her youngest child is six months old. One week after the birth she was back at her job in the law library.
“Being in the Bar is not compatible with running a home,” she says. “The pressure of a family seems to fall more on a woman. I employ a childminder and a housekeeper, but it can still get pretty wild at home trying to get things organised.”
Of the 20 women called to the Bar with her 13 years ago, only four are still practising. The others have all opted out, victims of financial and domestic pressures. She says: “You can face four or five hungry years, with little money coming in. But you still have the childminder and the housekeeper to pay, and there is no tax relief.
“Women barristers are self-employed, so there is no maternity leave. It can get to the stage where it's just not feasible to stick with it while trying to pay for the support system at home. If you opt out to have your children, then you are back at the end of the queue career-wise.”
She has not experienced discrimination by male colleagues at the Bar, but says that 10 years ago the attitude of some clients to women barristers was appalling. She recalls a farmer arriving from rural Ireland for his day in court who was visibly shocked when introduced to his female counsel.
“Why couldn't the solicitor have got him a proper barrister, he wanted to know, instead of 'a girl in a wig'. Today, that attitude has disappeared, except in some remoter parts. Women barristers have proved they can do the job just as well, and to do that most of them have had to be that bit better than men.”
Irish barristers operate through personal contact with solicitors. “There is no old boy network,” says McCrann. “I find that I get briefed equally by male and female solicitors.”
Senior counsel Inge Clissman built her career at a time when women encountered prejudice. “Some of the old fashioned element did resent us,” she says. “But talent will always be recognised. Twenty years ago there were only a small number of solicitors who would brief a woman barrister. Now some of our leading women are recognised as a match for any man.”
She expects the profession to change over the next five years. “It takes a while to get to the top,” she says. “But there is now an expectation that women are entitled to the top jobs.”
Public opinion was instrumental in the promotion of women. “People want to see more women judges. They feel they will bring new qualities to the job. Some of the new judges, like Catherine McGuiness of the Circuit Court, are outstanding. She's a remarkable person.”
Clissman says those starting out on their careers still face difficulties. With so little work available, the financial pressures can be crippling, she says.
She would like to see greater state support. “The early years at the Bar can be very trying. Earnings can be as low as £5,000. But you still have to eat, run a home and look respectable. That, rather than any male prejudice, is the main problem facing women.”