Women barristers closing pay gap a little in some areas of practice

Fenhalls: We can’t just wait for change

Women barristers are closing the pay gap with their male colleagues in certain practice areas but it remains vast in the higher-earning areas of work, the Bar Council has found.

Employment, commercial and financial services, and crime were highlighted as areas where women have gained some ground, according to anonymous data from the Bar Mutual Indemnity Fund.

The figures do not reflect seniority or working patterns, meaning they cannot be interpreted as showing that women and men in comparable situations are paid differently.

“Despite over half of new barristers being women, there are many more senior men,” researchers noted.

The Bar Council first put figures to the gender pay gap at the Bar in 2020, with its findings showing “shocking discrepancies” in individual practice areas. Last year, it highlighted how the gap had increased over the previous 20 years.

The latest figures showed that self-employed women barristers’ average gross fee earnings across all practice areas increased by 6% last year, while those for male barristers decreased by 5%. However, women still earned a third (34%) less than men.

Women made most progress in closing the gap in employment law, cutting it from 16% to 6%.

They reduced the gap from 57% to 51% in commercial and financial services, but researchers said it “remains very wide in one of the higher-earning practice areas”.

Amid a “sharp drop in fee income overall” in crime, where overall earnings fell by 19% last year, the gap between male and female barristers reduced by three points to 35%.

The pay gap widened the most in immigration law, up from 33% to 38%, against a background of declining earnings for all barristers.

In contentious chancery work, average fee income rose for both men and women, but women continued to earn 39% less than men, a slight increase.

Overall fee income from personal injury fell slightly, but the gap in earnings also increased by 1%, leaving women barristers 53% behind their male colleagues.

Women have consistently earned more than men for family work involving children, with the gap falling a little to 3% last year. When it came to other family work, male barristers earned 43% more. Researchers said earnings decreased in this area for both sexes.

Female barristers have overtaken men in their earnings for defamation work, where they now earn 36% more.

Researchers commented: “These figures show that there may have been a small degree of progress in some practice areas where the gap between men’s and women’s earnings is reducing, but that there is still a long way to go.

“In the higher earning, and larger practice areas of personal injury and commercial and financial Services, men’s fee-income is more than double that of women’s, despite more women than ever practising in those areas.”

Bar Council chair Mark Fenhalls KC said its ‘Modernising the Bar’ programme was focused on “evidence-based and practical actions” to tackle inequalities.

“Chambers can make a significant difference through ensuring fair distribution of work, including briefing practices, marketing opportunities, and support for new barristers and those returning to the Bar.

“We can’t just wait for change. It’s up to all of us to recognise inequalities and take steps to tackle them.”

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