International Women’s Day 2021: choose to challenge

March 12, 2021

Carly Sandbach

This article was published in accordance with International Women’s Day 2021.

In recent years we have charted and celebrated the journey of women in law since the introduction of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 just over 100 years ago, which first made it possible for women to qualify as barristers or solicitors.

Huge progress has been made in the years since. Thanks to the women who came before me, the barriers to accessing pupillage for women generally, have been largely removed: the most recent statistics show that the proportion of female and male pupils as of December 2020 was equal. Although the pupillage statistics for BAME women and women from a “non-traditional background” (usually used to refer to a person’s socio-economic and/or educational background) suggest that obstacles remain for these women.

However, the theme of International Women’s Day 2021 – choose to challenge – is a call to action that requires us to do more than generically celebrate the women in our lives, or to highlight the various individual successes of women.

There is work that remains to be done to ensure equality for women throughout their careers at the Bar. The statistics in this regard are stark:

  • Women make up only 38.2% of the Bar overall (compared to 50.2% of the UK working population);
  • Women account for only 16.8% of QCs;
  • Women, even when grouped by similar levels of experience and areas of practice, earn, on average, significantly less than their male counterparts.

These inequalities can only be overcome by changes to the status quo. The Bar must seek to forge inclusive work cultures where women’s careers thrive. Our focus must accordingly be on identifying the barriers to women’s career development and dismantling them. This includes:

  • challenging misconceptions about women’s ambitions and career aspirations after starting a family;
  • committing to tackle workplace culture and bias that may result in different (and often worse) outcomes for women in the workplace;
  • committing to ensuring women occupy leadership roles and to achieve gender equality in senior management;
  • actively supporting career advancement opportunities for women and preparation for silk or judicial applications.

Exchange Chambers is committed to working towards gender equality in its membership, staff and senior management, and is actively engaged in a number of initiatives to achieving these goals. I am very optimistic as to what the future holds for Women at the Bar, and am confident that on International Women’s Day 2022 we will be reflecting on the further progress we have made towards these goals.

Carly Sandbach is a barrister specialising in Commercial and Insolvency work. She is a member of Chambers’ Management Board, Quality & Diversity Committee and chair of Chambers’ Gender Equality Working Group.