Q. Tell us a bit about yourself
Kate: I’m a barrister at Matrix. I moved to Matrix from another chambers to join the private international law team just under a year ago.
Sophie: I am a Senior Associate in the international department at Leigh Day. I’ve been practicing as a solicitor for eight years and in that time have gained significant experience in cross-jurisdictional cases involving conflicts of law. Most of my cases have arisen out of human rights abuses or environmental harm, and often involve representing vulnerable individuals in claims against multinational companies. In one of my most recent cases I represented a group of Malawian women who alleged that they had experienced gender-based violence during the course of their work on tea estates.
Q. What’s the most significant improvement you’ve seen to the equality and inclusion of women in the last few years? What still needs to change?
Kate: I joined the profession nine years ago and my personal experience is that some things have improved in that time. I also think my career has developed in a way that means I am insulated from some of the more obvious sexism that can come with being a woman at the Bar. In my early years I was in court almost every day and on several occasions saw my client’s face visibly drop when I walked in and they realised they were being represented by a woman. Fortunately this has not happened to me for some time!
When I started out, sexual harassment at marketing events was quite a serious issue but I think this has improved across the legal profession. These days firms seem to be giving more thought to the diversity of the teams of barristers they instruct, including in relation to gender.
These are positive developments, but parenthood is the crunch point in a woman’s career at the Bar and there is still a massive problem with retention and progression after that point. And according to the Bar Council’s latest figures, in some areas of work the gender pay gap is getting worse not better.
Sophie: There is an increased presence of women in senior leadership roles, and an increased acceptance of flexible working patterns. There are now more women holding positions that allow them to speak out and act as role models for others. These are promising developments, but much remains to be done. For example, the “motherhood penalty” remains real: many women pay a price, in career terms, for having children, and barriers continue to exist for working mothers.
Q. What unique challenges does the legal industry face in terms of gender equality?
Kate: I don’t think any of the challenges we face in the legal industry are unique and the common complaints (career progression, child care, sexual harassment, etc.) are replicated across most other industries.
It also think it is important to remember that industry-wide challenges are only part of the picture and for women barristers one of the most important factors is the culture of their chambers. My previous set had no female silks and had never had a female senior clerk, so moving to Matrix which has 12 (soon to be 15!) female silks and a female CEO has been eye-opening.
Sophie: Although the levels of women entering the legal industry are high, the proportion of women in the profession decreases with seniority. There is a high attrition rate and at senior level, including partner and equity partner level, women remain significantly underrepresented. Many firms are progressive and supportive, but the legal industry in general faces a particular challenge in encouraging career development and ensuring that women can remain in the profession, including at more senior levels.
Q. What needs to be done to ensure efforts to improve gender equality take an intersectional approach?
Kate: By not working in silos when seeking to tackle issues of gender, race, sexuality, and disability and by using the resources that are already available to inform the approach. The Bar Council’s Race at the Bar report did an excellent job of setting out the nuances in the pay gap data in relation to race and gender, for example.
Sophie: Aiming for equality through policies and procedures alone is not enough. There must be recognition that people have different circumstances and so equitable action is needed to foster a truly equal workplace. Initiatives are requires that foster women’s professional development at all career stages, regardless of their circumstances.
Q. The theme for International Women’s Day this year is “Embrace Equity”. What does that mean to you?
Kate: I have an aversion to these cheerful alliterative IWD hashtags but for me equity would mean eliminating the gender pay gap at the Bar.
Sophie: Having women at the heart of the legal profession is critical. For me, equity would mean women being equally represented at all levels of the legal industry.
Q. What can lawyers do to #EmbraceEquity in 2023?
Kate: Read (or re-read) the Bar Council’s latest pay gap report and the Race at the Bar report and remind yourself of how much work there is to do. Then join me in celebrating IWD as I always do, by spending a few minutes enjoying the Gender Pay Gap Bot’s Twitter page.
Sophie: The profession needs increased diversity and inclusivity: it must ensure women from all backgrounds have access to all levels of the profession, and are supported to be retained in their careers.