Discrimination at the Bar: What women in practice say

‘Overwhelming’ number surveyed report climate of casual sexism and harassment

Results of a recent survey by the Bar of Ireland highlighting the issue of sexism in the profession have met with a mixed response by female Barristers.

Some 62 per cent of women practitioners who responded to the survey on their experience of life at the Bar reported being discriminated against. Though the survey was not designed to specify discrimination, an "overwhelming" number of respondents referred to a climate of casual sexism and sexual harassment, which they had either personally experienced or were aware of.

The study also suggested that it was more difficult for women to break into certain areas, such as criminal, commercial and constitutional law.

Niamh McGowan, who is now in her 10th year of practice at the employment law Bar, said she was “extremely surprised” by the survey results, having “never encountered discrimination”.


Siobhán Ní Chúlacháin, in practice for 17 years, is more guarded.

“It’s very complex,” she says. “But really, the important thing is that people are thinking about it and talking about it and that people are acknowledging the problem.”

Gráinne Larkin, chairwoman of the Working Group on Supporting Women at the Bar, says she is “happy we’re having this discussion . . . Sometimes it might be difficult to get [the idea that] women aren’t advancing in legal careers when you have a Chief Justice who’s a woman, [and] the Minister for Justice is a woman.”

Ivana Bacik, a qualified Barrister who is Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology at Trinity College Dublin, concurs, saying she is "really glad to see the Bar Council doing this research. But we knew already the sort of extent of difficulties for women in the profession."

Maeve Cox, a Barrister for five years who ran in the recent Seanad election on the Trinity panel, said she feels the "need to acknowledge the equality that is there" despite the findings. She notes that the profession is " changing dramatically."

The survey itself came under criticism from some.

“Further study needs to be done to find out specifics about the kind of discrimination,” says retired Supreme Court judge Ms Justice Catherine McGuinness, who calls the results “vague”.

Maura King, who has worked in the area of civil law for 25 years, says the survey was "designed to attract headlines rather than elicit meaningful information".

Young female Barristers were less likely to have witnessed overt sexism. Instead, the discrimination is subconscious.

“I can’t say that it’s an overt type of, or direct type of, discrimination,” says Aoife McNickle of the Irish Women Lawyers Association. “It’s the way it [the profession] was set up.”

Out of networking

McNickle tells of networking happening on the golf course or in the pub after work. “The fact is that women are predominantly caregivers, either for children or older parents . . . so rules out that networking.”

Bacik says there has been a reluctance to speak out and “a fear that if they do speak out, there’ll be repercussions”.

Says a young Barrister in criminal practice who did not wish to be named: “I think it can look like you’re being unnecessarily chippy or aggressive if you raise the issue [of sexism] informally with colleagues.”

Becky West, who left for London after two years devilling in Ireland, says she experienced "no overt sexism", though she adds that the Bar is "definitely not the kind of environment where you would speak out about it".

Barristers who qualified longer ago were more likely to have experienced direct discrimination. Ní Chúlacháin recalls that, as a student in the King’s Inns, “a very senior judge he said to me ‘ah sure, forget about your plan’.

“My primary practice was to go to public law and crime. ‘Forget about your plan and go into family law’, he said. People wanted you to be nice and maternal and do family law.”

Marguerite Bolger, a senior counsel at the employment law Bar, says that she "absolutely" experienced sexism when she started her practice. "Of course, at that time it was seen as acceptable".

The study by the Bar of Ireland were prompted by high attrition rates for women in the professions. Women now comprise 39 per cent of the Bar, or almost four in every 10 barristers. However, fewer than one in six senior counsel are women.

Attrition rate

According to King, “the high attrition rate, in my experience, is due to a combination of factors, including shortage of work and difficulty getting paid. If many of those [issues] were addressed, if they could be addressed, I think they would address issues identified in the survey.”

To address the situation, the Bar introduced a mentoring programme in which senior women mentored more junior women. Bolger was one of those who acted as a mentor.

“I’m very impressed with the training we got, very impressed with the attitude from senior female colleagues around encouraging more junior female colleagues,” she says. “It’s fantastic stuff but, there’s only so far that sort of thing can go . . . how do you bring it forward to giving women some sort of comfort that they will get the work?”

The survey identified the four key areas of concern for women: access to work; childcare, family responsibilities and maternity leave; working environment and culture; and stability and structure.

"You're a young woman at the Bar, that's fine. You're a woman in her 30s at the Bar with small children, you're not so fine," says Aisling Mulligan, who is in her third year practising medical negligence and judicial review. As a young woman, it's all to play for, so I think the difficulties come later. Maybe that's not true, but that's my fear."

Women who have children are testament to the difficulties. “I’ve a young family,” says Ní Chúlacháin. “I’m not as available for socialising the way I used to be, and I think that’s a big disadvantage.”

Inherent problems

Patricia Sheehy Skeffington, who has worked as a Barrister for 10 years, says the problems women experience seem inherent to the Bar. "I think the fundamental problem with the Bar is the way it's set up. The way it has always been set up is [as] a conglomeration of self-employed people. The fact of being self-employed is that you don't have the same welfare structures that surround PAYE."

She explains how women on maternity leave manage.

“People look out for each other at the Bar when they are on maternity leave. Like they’ll run their motions for them, this that and the other. It’s extremely ad hoc and informal and it really depends on your network, if that’s good enough or not.”

Ní Chúlacháin says she experienced “a lot of peer pressure to keep going even though you’re heavily pregnant”.

Bolger too thinks the problem is with the nature of the Bar itself.

“It’s not like in the workplace, where it’s easier to put things in place to encourage people. It’s very difficult, short of pretty dramatic intervention which would be completely against what we are, which is an independent referral Bar.”