Over the summer, I participated in a summer school conducted by one of the four Inns of Court - Middle Temple. The whole week was an enjoyable and informative experience but one of the things that really stuck with me were the brutally honest personal anecdotes that the young female barristers shared. A couple of examples of these anecdotes include situations in which they were told that they were “inappropriate” to wear a dress to court (to which they reacted by only wearing suits from then on in court) or events where judges have spoken to them as if they were a lesser being. At first, when I heard these stories, I wanted to be deeply surprised and shocked but in reality; I was not either of those things. I feel like at the back of our minds, as young and ambitious women, we are (unfortunately) somewhat prepared for situations of extreme gender-based discrimination to happen to us. Following this experience, I wanted to find out more about what are the biggest challenges for women at the Bar today.
In 1878 the first woman, named Janet Wood, completed a law degree in the United Kingdom. However, it was only in 1919 following the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act that women were legally and readily allowed to practice in the field of law. Of course, now more than 100 years later, things have changed considerably for the better for women who want to pursue a legal career. For example, the ratio of women to men as new pupils at the bar has exceeded from one to a few thousand to around 50:50. Whilst these developments cannot be ignored, the problems pursuing women at the bar do not cease to exist.
A huge problem that women at the bar become a victim of, which I think can also be applied for women in other demanding careers, is the lack of longevity. Being a barrister is an extremely time-consuming, challenging and stressful job for anybody but these stresses are aggravated for women. Eventually, they amount to being too challenging and women are almost forced out of their careers. The stresses that women face are more than the challenges of the job - they also include the challenge of societal and patriarchal pressures to first of all have and then maintain a stable and happy family life. This includes the realm of being an efficient homemaker; being a dutiful wife and of course, a caring and reliant mother. Obviously not every female barrister chooses to follow this route but even then, they have an invisible pressure forever weighing them down. Whether a female barrister chooses to have a family life alongside their career or simply chooses to put their career as their main focus is not the problem. The problem is that there are not enough schemes at the Bar to help women maintain a balanced lifestyle in which they can work to suit their needs, excel in their career and most importantly maintain their well-being and mental health. According to Athena Markides (the 2019 chair of the Young Barrister’s Committee), the “greatest threat facing young women at the Bar today is burnout”.
Burnout is not the only challenge facing women at the Bar today - far from it actually. Microaggressions, pay parity and many other things join the protruding and regrettable list. However, I have hope (as should you) that these issues will not exist forever. Our ambitions becoming realities will help the women of the next generation to feel even more safe and comfortable to pursue the career of their dreams and be a powerful voice in a world that truly needs it.
2nd Year LLB Student