Gender pay gap at Bar has widened over past 20 years

Barristers: Growing income disparity

The income gap between male and female barristers has increased over the last 20 years, new Bar Council figures have shown.

A separate release of data has shown has barristers working in criminal law suffered more financial hardship than any other area of practice as a result of Covid.

Last year, Bar Council research revealed “shocking discrepancies” in income – in all but two of the 30 practice areas analysed, female barristers received a lower proportion of the gross fee income than their representation in the field.

The new analysis looked back over 20 years and found that, since 2000, male barristers’ average income has jumped from a little over £50,000 to £90,000. But for women, it has gone from around £31,000 to £53,000.

The growing disparity occurred both in areas of practice where there was already a big gap – in commercial and financial services, for example, female barristers in 2000 earned on average 49% less than men, and it was 57% in 2020 – and in areas where it was small.

In employment, the gap between male and female earnings has increased from 8% in 2000 to 16%.

However, the reverse was true in practice areas where women dominate. Some six in 10 family barristers handling children work were women in 2020 and the income gap has shrunk from 21% to 4%.

“These figures demonstrate that, although we are making progress in representation of women at the Bar, we have a long way to go to achieve equality,” the report concluded.

“It’s worrying that the gap between men and women is getting wider. Women have accounted for half of all new pupils for 20 years now, so we have to ask difficult questions about why so many leave and why men continue to out-earn women.”

The Bar Council’s Modernising the Bar programme began in 2019 and is aiming to effect change on the distribution of work, along with issuing practice management guidance, using mentoring more, running the Bar Council leadership programme, and taking measures to tackle discrimination and inappropriate behaviours.

The research also showed that, over the 20 years, criminal law barristers have seen a real-terms decrease in income.

Adjusted for inflation, male criminal barristers have seen a 33% decrease in earnings since their peak of £150,000 in 2006. The pay gap has narrowed somewhat over the two decades from 51% to 38%.

To make matters worse, separate research showed that criminal barristers were the most likely to report a negative impact from the pandemic (80%) than any other practice area.

The survey of 3,479 barristers on the impact of Covid formed part of the latest Barristers’ working lives survey conducted by the Bar Council, which also highlighted the extent of bullying, harassment and discrimination at the Bar.

Just under one in three barristers (30%) reported that the pandemic had a positive impact on their practice/work overall, but 63% said it had a negative impact.

Again there are stark differences by practice area: family barristers were neutral overall about the impact of the pandemic, but 53% of criminal barristers felt it had a significant negative impact on their practice/work overall, and a further 27% said it had a small negative impact.

Barristers in personal injury/professional negligence were the next most likely to report negative impacts of the pandemic.

Some 28% of barristers of all stripes experienced financial hardship, but this rose to 51% of criminal barristers. Barristers in commercial and chancery (14%) and employed barristers (10%) were least likely to suffer this way.

Approaching half of Asian barristers (44%) said they had suffered financial hardship, compared to 30% of Black barristers and 26% of White barristers.

Employed barristers fared far better than those in chambers or sole practitioners.

Asked whether there was anything about their practice of working patterns they would like to change in the future, the most popular choice of those wanting change was more remote working (60%), followed by more flexible working (42%).

Two-thirds of male barristers felt that work was distributed fairly, compared with only half of female barristers.

White barristers were most likely to feel that work was distributed fairly (62%), compared to 40% of Asian barristers and only 30% of Black barristers.

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