A report from the body that oversees Queen’s Counsel appointments has recommended a raft of changes to encourage women to apply and bring the numbers of female silks nearer to the proportion eligible in the profession.
Women tend to break from the profession early in their careers, including to have children, and appear more reluctant to apply for a number of reasons, it found.
While the ratio of women to men at both pupillage and tenancy was 51% to 49%, men made up 87% of self-employed QCs.
The research by the Work Foundation  said the factors inhibiting women from applying included obligations to supply references from among judges, the number of recent cases of substance provided – which currently stands at 12 – and an aversion to taking risks with established careers.
A number of changes to the system have already been made since the research was commissioned, based on early findings.
These include making clear that cases from the past three years instead of two could be put forward, and reducing the number of judicial references required from 12 to eight.
Other recommendations included removing or reducing the minimum number of cases required, amending guidelines on the type of advocacy assessed, greater transparency in weighting assessment methods, improving the diversity of the selection panel, and boosting female QC role models and mentoring schemes.
Russell Wallman, chief executive of QC Appointments (QCA), told Legal Futures that the point of the research was to see if there were “unnecessary or improper” barriers preventing women in the realistically eligible pool of potential women candidates for QC from applying that could be removed – those between 15 and 25 years’ post-qualification.
Parity with this pool would be nearer 30% of QCs being women, instead of fewer than 15% at present.
He said a consultation paper would be issued shortly to ask whether the application process should be changed so that people applying for QC would list all their significant cases rather than picking 12.
However, applicants would need to be told that the panel was interested in evidence of competency “and that’s obviously given more effectively from recent work, and also as a matter of reality nobody’s memory is perfect”, he cautioned.
Another factor that was “difficult to get hold of”, he said, was evidence that women were less likely to “take a punt” and apply unless they were “convinced they are appointable”. This was reflected in the fact that women who did apply had a higher success rate than their male equivalents.
He explained: “Women tend to be more risk averse than men, and unlike promotions in most fields becoming QC is a risk…
“You can get appointed to QC and somewhat to your horror the solicitors who were happy to instruct you as a junior don’t think you’re good value as a QC and won’t instruct you.”
Mr Wallman said that researchers floated the idea of a two-tier QC rank that was less onerous to obtain but involved some sort of future re-assessment. The idea received an “extremely adverse” reception among the female barristers canvassed, he said.
“My suspicion is that women would not be keen on this. They would regard it as a second-class badge and would very much want us to make sure we got rid of unnecessary barriers in a single QC scheme rather than having a separate stream.”
Sam Mercer, head of equality and diversity at the Bar Council, welcomed the report’s recommendations, but said: “There are… wider economic factors behind any individual’s decision to make a silk application and this includes making a calculation of the impact on their practice and chambers.
“We must recognise simply revising process, while both sensible and helpful, may not… necessarily significantly increase the pool of women candidates.”