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Belonging at the Bar: women’s journey from barriers to barristers

updated on 07 March 2023

Silk, Anatomy of a Scandal, The Split, Legally Blonde… the list goes on! We’re no strangers to women in the courtroom on TV but very few (if any) programmes express the difficulty women have faced getting to this point. For those who choose the barrister route, the road for women has been one paved with various obstacles. To this day, there are fewer women at the Bar than those practising as solicitors (38.8% compared with 52%). 

Reading time: 13 minutes

This Feature looks at individual women’s journeys to the Bar, what the Bar looks like today, and insights from pupil barristers Emilene Davis and Sherelle Appleby, Bar student Kenza Khan, and barrister and founder of HerBar Rachel Bale.

Beginnings at the Bar

In May 1922 Dr Ivy Williams became the first woman called to the Bar, followed by Helena Normanton six months later. Williams was born in 1877, more than 50 years before women achieved universal suffrage and could vote. In fact, she was called to the Bar before women had actually been given the right to vote! It wasn’t until 1928, when the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act was introduced, that all people over the age of 21 were eligible to vote in the UK.

But this wasn’t an end to the barriers Williams faced in being called the Bar. Despite completing her law exams in 1903 at the Society of Oxford Home Students (now part of Oxford University’s St Anne’s College), she was banned from receiving her BA, MA and Bachelor of Civil Law until 1920, when Oxford changed its regulations. Ironically, it took yet another new law to pass for it to be made possible for Williams to be considered for legal practice. The Sex Disqualification (removal) Act 1919 became law in December 1919, enabling women to join the profession and professional bodies, to sit on juries and officially be awarded degrees.

“Knowing that women before me have been ‘firsts’ and have flourished fills me with confidence and optimism about my future as a barrister and all that I can achieve.” Emilene Davis

However, Williams never actually went on to practise law. With education at the heart of the profession, she instead became the first woman to teach law at an English university, lecturing at her alma mater from 1920 to 1945. This meant that when Normanton was called to the Bar (six months after Williams), she became the first woman to practise at the Bar in November 1922. The list of Normanton’s achievements is long, but here are a few that stand out:

  • She became the first married woman in Britain to have a passport in her maiden name.
  • She reapplied for Middle Temple within hours of the removal act coming into force in 1919.
  • She was the first person to leave a legacy donation to the University of Sussex.
  • She was the first woman to obtain a divorce for her client.
  • She was the first woman to lead the prosecution in a murder trial.
  • She was the first woman to appear at the High Court of Justice in London and the Old Bailey.

Normanton opened so many doors for women, both in the legal profession and the wider world. However, her many ‘firsts’ tell a sad tale of the struggles women faced to break into law – a profession that has such an impact on all our lives.

Just one year after Normanton had been called to the Bar, in 1923 Mithan Tata became the first woman called to the Bar by Lincoln’s Inn and the first practising Indian woman barrister. Tata was an extraordinary figure in any era. In 1914 she moved from India to London to give evidence before parliament on why Indian women should be given the vote. As part of the then British Empire, the decision as to Indian women’s voting rights lay with the UK parliament. Following further campaigning by Tata and her sister Herabai Tata, in 1921 their province of Bombay gave women the vote on the same terms as men. You can read more about her and her journey into law in this piece published by The Inner Temple.

It’s worth noting here that the first known Black woman to be called to the Bar was Stella Thomas in 1933, more than 10 years after Williams, Normanton and Tata. In 1933, Thomas was the only African woman to participate in a conversation with Margery Perham, British historian and writer on African affairs at the Royal Society of Arts. She criticised African colonialism in front of a large and influential audience, later returning to West Africa as the first female lawyer in the region. Just 10 years after qualifying, Thomas became West Africa’s first female magistrate.

Even now, in 2023, the founder of HerBar Rachel Bale, a female-led company providing information, guidance and resources to the community of female barristers in England and Wales, reflects on what it means to be a woman of colour at the Bar. Bale states: “I‘m also very grateful to be able to be a face that represents women of colour at the Bar, especially in traditionally underrepresented practice areas.” While Bar student and LCN blogger Kenza Khan emphasises the significance of this position, “I think it’s important for me to state from the outset that I am not just a woman, I am a woman of colour.”

Despite, or perhaps due to, their struggles, these first women called to the Bar were in constant support of one another. Monica Geikie Cobb, the first woman to hold a brief in court (and win her case!), expressed her gratitude for the consideration shown to the women who fought to get women to the Bar in correspondence with Normanton.

Yet in 2022, 100 years since the first woman had been called to the Bar, it was the turn of Emilene Davis. She recalls “feeling excited about entering the profession during this time” as it reminded her that, “despite the unique obstacles that women face, if we remain driven and resilient, we can build a successful career in law”. Emilene added: “This is especially important to me as I am a bi-racial (white and Black Caribbean) woman from a working-class background with a west-country accent. I’m the first in my family to aspire to the Bar.”

Individuals like Emilene, Kenza, Rachel and Sherelle showcase the dedication of women at the Bar and, alongside platforms like HerBar, encourage, inspire and engage with young women starting their legal journey.

So, what happens next?

The historical record begins to slow after these ‘first’ women began practising at the Bar. In 2013, Hilary Heilbron KC wrote a wonderful article about her mother and, through this personal perspective, the history of women at the Bar over the “the past century”. In these personal stories, we begin to get a real sense of the obstacles that women pursuing the Bar faced and continue to face today.

In 1939, Dame Rose Heilbron was called to the Bar and became one of the first two women to be made King’s Counsel (KC) (alongside Normanton), the first female recorder and the first female judge at the Old Bailey – these women don’t just do one first! She remained the only female practising silk in England and Wales for the majority of the 1950s and early 1960s. This was an honour and even now only a handful of barristers are successful in their application. Taking silk is an appointment to King (or Queen’s) Counsel. It’s an office, conferred by the Crown, that’s recognised by courts. Members also have the privilege of sitting within the inner bar of court. Those barristers who 'took silk' during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II were Queen's Counsel (QC) but following the death of the Queen all QCs immediately became KCs.

In 2013, Rose Heilbron’s daughter spoke about “the rarity of her [Rose Heilbron’s] position as a successful and young working wife and mother” and how it “led to her acquiring an extensive public and press following, both nationally and globally, no doubt helped by the fact that she was beautiful and hence photogenic”. There’s something to be said for her sitting for four portraits in the National Gallery!

On a more serious note, the balancing of parenthood with work is something that resonates with professionals today and is a constant consideration for those in the legal profession. Pupil barrister Sherelle Appleby says: “I think a greater awareness of the employed Bar is required, especially for women starting out in the legal profession who have responsibilities and dependants.”

Read this Oracle that answers the question ‘How can I manage a successful career in law and having a family?’. 

Rose Heilbron’s story is certainly impressive, but it doesn’t reflect the reality of the slow progress being made for women at this time. By 1955 just two women had taken silk and only 64 women were practising at the self-employed bar. However, in 1950 alone, 17 men were appointed to the Bar. The judiciary – the body made up of judges, magistrates, tribunal members, and coroners – is equally lacking in representation. Elizabeth Lane became the first female county court judge in 1962 and later a high court judge in 1965. Nine years later, her daughter Rose Heilbron joined her in this honour, but the door still seemed to remain closed for many others.

For more context on the journey from ‘junior’ to KC, check out this page on ‘What lawyers do’.

By 1972, only 7% of those practising at the Bar were women. They had no maternity leave, no targets, no flexible working, no compliance officers, no chambers grievance policies and no equal pay (until 1970). Women were repeatedly breaking barriers but the energy it took to do so often left them with little space to advocate for others. Hilary Heilbron remembers her early days at the Bar in the 1970s, noting that there was “no advocacy training; no interviews, no pupillage awards” and that she was “the first and only female tenant in chambers for about 10 years”. Over the next 20 years, women would continue making progress at the Bar. Below are just a few of these notable moments in time: 

  • In 1974, Barbara Calvert QC became the first female head of chambers in Middle Temple.
  • In 1979, Margaret Thatcher (who read for the Bar before becoming an MP) becomes the UK’s first female prime minister.
  • In 1984, Lady Hale becomes the first woman to be appointed to the Law Commission.
  • In 1991, Baroness Scotland of Asthal becomes the first Black woman to be appointed to QC (at 35, the youngest person in over 200 years to do so).

In 1992, the first formal report that was focussed on women at the Bar was published as part of a sub-committee within the Bar Council. At this time, 1,450 or around 19.5% of the practising Bar were women and it took a while for this rising number to be formally recognised! The report was entitled ‘Without Prejudice’ and it led to the Bar Council employing compliance officers for the first time in its history. These early reports and investigations were key in ensuring that women began to not only enter the profession but be recognised within the profession. So, as you can see, women led the charge for change in their profession and continue to do so today.

“The Bar remains very traditional and the first thing you’re told about is the self-employed Bar which is also great fun. However, through speaking to students and other aspiring barristers there’s little to no awareness that you can be paid a full-time salary and still be in court doing what you love.” Sherelle Appleby

So, what about now?           

Since the 1990s, women are still marking many firsts at the Bar and are progressing the work of those who came before them. As time has passed, our knowledge of women’s place at the Bar has increased. Annual reports from both the Bar Standards Board (BSB) and the Bar Council collect data on diversity and inclusion to ensure the profession can work towards improving diversity and inclusion across the board. Commenting on this, Sherelle says: “Female representation at the Bar is growing, which is very needed. When I was first starting, I only shadowed white men which caused doubt sometimes about whether I could join this profession.” To this end, the latest reports aim to not just inform, but to also give practical advice on how to promote gender equality at the Bar.

However, unlike the stories we hear from the past, today’s reports can only tell the story of the collective, rather than the individual. That said, they allow us to paint a wider picture of diversity at the Bar and where women sit within this. For example, the BSB released a report in 2022 entitled Income at the Bar – by Gender and Ethnicity, which found that on average female barristers earn nearly 50% less than their male counterparts. Similarly, the BSB’s 2018 report, Women at the Bar: Research exploring solutions to promote gender equality dissected data from 2010 onwards and found that in 2017 34.5% of the self-employed Bar were women, an increase of 12.5% since 2010.

Meanwhile, The Bar Council also conducts similar reports, with the most recent (Barrister earning by sex and practice area – 2022 update) published in October 2022. The report concluded that although “the gap between men’s and women’s earnings is reducing, there is still a long way to go”. Commenting on how she feels these statistics could be improved, Emilene says: “Women connecting with, mentoring and supporting other women is powerful. To better support women on their journey to the Bar, more initiatives that provide a forum for networking would be beneficial.”

These forums could be provided by the Inns of Court, the collective name for the four legal societies in London that hold the exclusive right of admission to the Bar – each of which already take part in research and projects aimed at supporting women at the Bar:

All four Inns are part of The Inns of Court Alliance for Women, which exists to “encourage and support women throughout their careers, and to increase retention and diversity within the profession”. Bar Student Kenza also highlighted the work of individual chambers: “One of the best ways women could be better supported is through schemes encouraging them to apply, like One Essex Court’s ‘Women at the Bar’ initiative.”

There are so many reports and resources like these, all of which reveal how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go in equal measure.

One thing is clear, women must continue to break down the unique barriers they face at the Bar and these barriers must be made more transparent. Reports and movements, such as those discussed above, have ensured that the advancement of women at the Bar is beginning to be taken more seriously, as well as the gap between female barristers and female solicitors (38.8% compared with 52%). As more individuals come together to work alongside chambers, regulatory bodies (eg, the BSB and the Bar Council) and individuals, more change will hopefully follow. Perhaps soon the courtroom dramas we love to watch on TV will also acknowledge this past, while continuing to look towards a future with more diverse representation at the Bar and fewer barriers to women across the legal profession.

Find out more about women's journey into the solicitors profession in this LCN Says

Words of wisdom from women at the Bar, past and present

Helena Normanton (1929): “While any woman was held back from the position which her talents drew her, the whole of womanhood was lowered.”

Rose Helibron (1939): “The general impression of a woman lawyer seems to be a sober old maid. I have not adopted the law as a hobby. I am serious about my career, but that does not mean I shall give up dancing, swimming, golf or tennis.”

Sherelle Appleby (2023): “Many people told me not to join the Bar because it’s hard but so is everything worth having. The life of a barrister is fast-paced and fun I encourage all aspiring barristers to join!

Emilene Davis (2023): “Be yourself; you are your unique selling point. As a barrister, you will come into contact with a wide range of people from all walks of life. Bringing your authentic self to the Bar will diversify the profession and help ensure that it’s more reflective of society.”

Rachel Bale (2023): “More support is needed in order to encourage women to speak confidently and loudly about their achievements and to practise speaking about their experiences in the most positive way rather than downplaying them. You’re not being ‘bossy’ or ‘arrogant’, you’re simply demonstrating your achievements.”

Kenza Khan (2023): “I think what excites me most is to be a part of this movement in changing the face of the Bar and helping it become more accessible.”

If you’re an aspiring barrister or have been inspired by this Feature, check out these LCN Says articles by Sherelle and Emilene.

To stay up to date with the legal profession’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, head to LCN’s Diversity hub, sponsored by Gowling WLG.

Katherine Bryant (she/her) is a content and engagement coordinator at LawCareers.Net.