On International Women's Day 2018, Louisa Collins writes on the challenges for women at the Bar

The independent Bar struggles to hold on to female barristers. Given that the numbers of men and women entering the profession are broadly equal, why is it that the numbers drop off throughout the working life of women at the Bar? In 2017, of the 1,407 practicing barristers under five years’ call, 777 are men and 628 are women. The figures drop when one looks at the number over 15 years’ call. In this bracket, of the 10,208 practitioners, less than half are women – only 3,218.

The number of female Queen’s Counsel and Judges are notoriously low. In 2017, only 254 of 1,665 Queen’s Counsel were women. The percentage of Court of Appeal female Judges in 2017 is increasing, but still remains at less than a quarter.  In the High Court, the proportion is even less, at 22%. In the courts judiciary, there are slightly more than a quarter, at 28%.

One of the obvious reasons is because women take time out of the profession to start a family. Having come back from maternity leave in February 2017, this is a topic that interests me and draws on personal anxieties and concerns about practice development. Many women feel that combining the demands of the Bar with a family life is insurmountable. This is not surprising; there is no maternity pay (other than a paltry statutory maternity allowance available from the Government). When going on maternity leave, there will no doubt be a number of barristers who will be the happy recipients of your returned briefs- but this favour rarely gets returned upon your return to the Bar. Then there is the task of trying to rebuild a practice by reminding solicitors that you still exist and are still perfectly capable and willing, perhaps a year after they last saw you. Then there is the financial challenge of earning enough to cover the exorbitant childcare costs, particularly when, for at least the first six months following maternity leave, your income won’t start flowing in.

Another challenge is trying to work part-time. As many will know, persuading the courts to list matters for counsel’s availability is already an uphill struggle, so having one or two less working days in your week means you may miss out on that brief.

So, it’s little surprise that women do not want to endure the above challenges to maintain a career at the Bar. What is the Bar doing to better these statistics?

One positive step that the Bar Council has taken is to put together comprehensive Family Career Breaks Advice Pack which provides helpful practical information, including a checklist of things to do before taking a break and when you are about to start up again. Importantly, it sets out the relevant parts of the BSB Handbook dealing with discrimination, equality and diversity. This was issued in 2016 under the chairmanship of Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC and comes about as a result of a series of initiatives which aim to support women at the Bar. In addition, the Bar Council offers a maternity mentoring scheme, which helps those returning to practice after having had a family.

One of the concerns I had was letting instructing solicitors and the courts know I was working a four-day week. I rarely put my out of office on and check in on emails to ensure I don’t appear to be “off-grid”. As time goes on I realise that the support from instructing solicitors and the judiciary is better than I had feared. The extradition Judges at Westminster are accommodating. I no longer feel uncomfortable saying that I am not available due to family/childcare reasons. Solicitors have not turned their back when I have told them I am not working on a Friday. They have turned out to be extremely supportive. And so too have Chambers’ clerks.

The very fact of being self-employed is a challenge when combined with a family life. But being open, particularly with the judiciary to explain your working patterns, does (and should) not close doors.

Shared parental leave (SPL) also provides an opportunity to those wishing to maintain a career at the Bar and start a family. SPL allows employed parents and adopters to share leave and pay with their partner to care for children from birth until their first birthday. It is likely that women at the Bar would qualify for maternity allowance (payable for 39 weeks). If she chooses to end her entitlement early, she can give her partner access to shared parental leave if that partner is employed and complies with the continuity of employment test. This has the potential to give women at the Bar greater choice and flexibility in maintaining their career at the Bar.

There is a long way to go to improve the statistics, but there are positive steps being taken which recognise the challenges facing women at the Bar who are starting or have started a family.

Louisa Collins is a barrister specialising in extradition, human rights and serious crime.  Louisa has been listed in Chambers and Partners since 2017 and is ranked as a band 3 leader in the field of extradition at the London Bar.

This article was originally published by Criminal Bar Quarterly on 8 March 2018. This article will appear in full, in the Criminal Bar Quarterly out next week.