Mind the Gap: Bar Standards Board reveals female BAME barristers are the lowest-earners

November 16, 2020

3 min read

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What's going on here?

Recent research undertaken by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) shows that minority ethnic women are the lowest-earning barristers in the profession.

What does this mean?

The BSB research shows that female barristers, and those from BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) backgrounds are likely to earn less than male and White counterparts by every measure.

There are also differences within the income bracket of BAME barristers once ethnicity is examined more deeply. Black and Black British barristers are shown to be earning less than Asian and Asian British barristers overall. Stark figures show that Black African and Asian Bangladeshi were particularly low-earning groups, with a median income band of £30-60,000 compared to £90-150,000 for White barristers.

The research indicates key reasons for the disparities. Firstly, BSB’s 2016 research on women at the Bar found that some barristers felt as though there was favouritism around work allocation. This favouritism found male barristers more likely to be promoted to potential clients and given work by the clerks. 

On top of this, previous BSB research has found that BAME barristers are more likely to work at the employed Bar, or as sole practitioners, “which may well impact on their earnings”. This, alongside the way in which work has been allocated, has left BAME barristers with less opportunity for career progression, again likely to impact on their earnings “in the short and long term”, the November 2020 report suggests. 

As Garden Court Chambers’ Natasha Shotunde expresses, the bar is a “very difficult profession to work in. We work crazy hours, it’s very isolating, but having a layer of racism there means it’s crippling”. Imposter syndrome is one thing, but being made to feel completely out of place and disregarded on the grounds of your gender and race is another.

What's the big picture effect?

As well as finding itself within a worldwide conversation about the gender pay gap, and a time which is ripe for BAME advocacy, this report comes amidst a whole host of other issues the Bar is facing when it comes to racial discrimination.

In September, an investigation was launched by the HM Courts and Tribunals Service after a black barrister, Alexandra Wilson, was mistaken for a defendant three times in one day whilst at court. She has since been praised on social media for speaking out about racism in the courts of England and Wales.

Similarly, Shotunde has spoken out about her discriminatory experiences whilst at the bar: “I used to practise in crime, and as a pupil and a junior I would be mistaken for a defendant”; “nobody thinks that black people or ethnic minorities can be barristers”.

Law firms have been trying to increase their diversity. With Linklaters in 2019, followed by Allen and Overy, revealing both their gender and ethnicity pay gap figures, some firms have set clear targets dedicated to maintaining diversity within firms for the future. Does the Bar have to keep up? It appears so.

Why is diversity so important? Well, it seems like an obvious answer. Through embracing diversity and equality, a much larger talent pool is created. This will enable chambers to reap the benefits of a broader market, and a raised profile within the legal community and society as a whole.

It also seems completely ironic that the Equality Act 2010 ensures consistency in making workplaces fair environments and compliant with the law; particularly regarding equality for race and sex. With the BSB’s findings revealing discriminatory pay gaps, the Bar needs to step up and change its practices in order to hold on to diversity. It is important that the judiciary reflects society, and the Bar Council in a 2020 open letter summarises it precisely: “As the bar is the main feeder for the judiciary, any impact on diversity at the bar will have an inevitable knock-on effect on judicial diversity”.

Report written by Hannah Parker

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