tbc May 2006
I sometimes wonder whether I would ever have chosen the Bar as a career if I had known how badly the odds were stacked against women at the time. When I was called to the Bar in July 1976, women...
I sometimes wonder whether I would ever have chosen the Bar as a career if I had known how badly the odds were stacked against women at the time. When I was called to the Bar in July 1976, women made up only 16% of entrants - and this was the first year that the figure had crept into double figures.
The group picture of the 81 members called to Lincoln’s Inn that day illustrates the point perfectly. There we are at the front - a dozen females in a sea of men just behind the all male benchers.
But it wasn’t just the numbers against women. It was also the culture of the time.
No less an authority than Glanville Williams QC warned how difficult it was for women to succeed at the bar. In the 1973 - not 1903 - edition of his classic text “Learning the Law”, he stated:“Practice at the Bar is a demanding task for a man; it is even more difficult for a women…..It is not easy for a young man to get up and face the court; many women find it harder still… A women’s voice also, does not carry as well as a man’s.”
Fortunately the scholarship committee of the Inn had a more enlightened view and granted me both a Hardwicke Entrance Scholarship and then the Kennedy Scholarship. I am very grateful to them. Without this help, I doubt whether I could have afforded to go to the Bar at all. And without the support and friendship of many colleagues here, it would have been much more of a struggle.
For there were plenty more obstacles for aspiring women barristers to overcome. Finding pupilage was difficult in an era when chambers would quite happily declare that they had a policy of no women at all or restrict women tenants to one in case, they said, of a double pregnancy problem.
Nor could you escape the male dominated world when you finally qualified. It is etched into my memory how an entire circuit robing room fell silent in shock and horror when it dawned on them that I intended to change there as well.
I remember, too, being warned that unless I wore a long sleeved white shirt, a black knee-length skirt and a black jacket so I looked like a nun, I would be thrown out of the tiny women’s robing room that is now the disabled toilet on the first floor of the Royal Courts of Justice.
It is no wonder that the attrition rate amongst women barristers was much higher. By 2002, the Inn’s records show that I was the only one of those female entrants still in full time practice while 19 of our male counterparts are still colleagues at the Inn.
The position, thankfully, has been transformed. Today, women make up roughly a third of the practicing Bar and almost fifty percent of the entrants to the profession. The excellent Bar Equality and Diversity Code which treats discrimination of all kinds as professional misconduct means that those old robing room attitudes have long gone (or have at least been driven deep underground).
What remains the same, however, is the Inn itself which still provides valuable scholarships on merit to ensure the profession remains open to all and continues to provide a community based on friendship. It is why my experiences at Lincolns Inn, both then and now, have been overwhelmingly positive.
Many of the friends I made back in 1976 have gone on to become leaders of the Bar (and indeed our country!). They were never infected by the old-fashioned attitudes of the time, never saw women as somehow inferior. They helped ensure that these out-dated attitudes belong in the past to the benefit of not just our profession but the system of justice as a whole.