Women now make up 40% of Bar as diversity trends continue

Barristers: 60% of pupils are women

Long-term trends of improving diversity at the Bar continued last year, with women now making up just over 40% of barristers, Bar Standards Board (BSB) figures have shown.

Its annual Diversity at the Bar report said that, as at 1 December 2023, there were 18,356 people at the Bar in total, 300 more than a year earlier.

There were 572 pupils, which is 84 more than in December 2022, and the highest number since the BSB started publishing the report in 2015.

The figures (all excluding those who did not respond to specific questions) showed the proportion of women has increased by nearly one percentage point (pp) to 40.6% of the Bar, while the proportion of female KCs has increased by just over 1pp to 20.3%. Nearly 60% of pupils were female.

Five KCs and 38 non-KCs said they had a different gender identity to the one they were registered with at birth.

The proportion of barristers from minority ethnic backgrounds has increased 0.6pp to 16.9%, compared to 16.7% of the working age population in England and Wales. Some 10.7% of KCs were from these backgrounds (up 0.2pp) and 24.9% of pupils (up 2.2pp).

The report said: “There are some notable differences when further disaggregating by ethnic group. There was a year-on-year increase in the overall proportion of Asian/Asian British barristers of 0.3pp; Black/Black British barristers of 0.2pp; and a decrease year on year in the overall proportion of Mixed/Multiple ethnic group barristers of 0.1pp; and White barristers of 0.6pp.

“When excluding those that have not provided information, there is a greater proportion of Asian/Asian British practitioners at the Bar compared to the proportion of Asian/Asian British individuals in the UK working age population (8.2% vs 7.0%), and the same can be said for those from Mixed/Multiple ethnic backgrounds (3.7% vs 1.7%).

“By contrast, there is a slightly smaller proportion of those from Black/Black British backgrounds (3.5% vs 4.1%), and a greater relative underrepresentation for those from other ethnic groups (1.5% vs 3.9%).”

There was also a greater disparity in the proportion of all non-KCs from Black/Black British backgrounds compared to the proportion of all KCs from the same background – it was particularly high for those of Black/Black British – African backgrounds.

While there still appeared to be an underrepresentation of disabled practitioners at the Bar (8.2% against 16.5% for UK workers), the figure has jumped to 15.7% of pupils.

The Bar continues to age – in 2015, 14.8% of barristers were 55+ but the figure is now 25.4%.

Of those who disclosed their sexuality, 12.6% of pupils, 7.2% of non-KC barristers, and 5.3% of KCs were bisexual, gay, lesbian or another non-heterosexual orientation, all significantly higher than the UK average of 4%.

The Bar has long had far more privately educated members than the wider population (a third of those who answered the question), while 54% had parent(s) who attended university.

Three in 10 barristers have primary caring responsibilities for one or more children – 41% of women, (in line with the national average of 40%) and 23% of men (compared to a national average of 36%).

BSB director general Mark Neale said: “It is encouraging to see the Bar continuing to become more representative of the society that it serves, with increases in 2023 in the proportion of women barristers, barristers from minority ethnic backgrounds and barristers with disabilities.

“Despite this progress, these groups remain underrepresented at the most senior levels of the Bar. This underlines the importance of the work we are doing to review our equality and diversity rules and to work proactively with the profession to support barristers and chambers in meeting those rules.”

Dana Denis-Smith, founder of the Next 100 Years project and chief executive of Obelisk Support said: “The gradual rise in the proportion of barristers who are women as well as the proportion of female KCs is testament to the important work being done to build a more diverse workforce and promote a culture of inclusion at the Bar.

“It is clear, however, that women and those from ethnic minority backgrounds continue to experience barriers to progress – including reports of bullying, harassment and discrimination exposed in the Bar Council’s recent Barristers’ Working Lives survey.

“We have come a long way but more needs to be done to change the culture and combat inequality.

“The demands of the Bar can be particularly difficult for those with caring responsibilities and we still see women leaving the profession too soon. Options for flexible working, targeted support for maternity returners and wider uptake of mentoring and coaching schemes are just some of the ways we can accelerate progress on equality.”

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