Guest blog: Eleena Misra - New initiative to help women at the Bar support each other

9 March 2017

 Eleena Mirsa

"We stand on the shoulders of the women who came before us, women who had to fight for the rights that we now take for granted." Sheryl Sandberg

With the new Gender Pay Gap Regulations coming into force and the fact that International Women's Day takes place this month, what better time to let you know about the Barristers Lean in Circle ('BLIC')?

Many of you will be familiar with the initiative set up by Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Its central thesis is about the difficulties uniquely experienced by women in trying to get ahead in their chosen careers. While some of the chapters deal with the struggle of juggling work and family, to use that time-honoured and weathered phrase, much of the book is about the common setbacks or hurdles which all women can face. The book has its staunch supporters, but has attracted some criticism as well. Its detractors argue that Sheryl Sandberg speaks from a position of privilege and some of her proposed lean in solutions are unworkable for most.

This book has however inspired the creation of thousands of Lean in Circles which share the common goal of empowering women to achieve in their chosen careers, on the basis that this is good for everyone in society and not just women. The Lean In website provides a shared space, ideas and tools, which can be tweaked to meet the individual needs of any circle or chapter.

 "I try to avoid looking forward or backward, and try to keep looking upward." Charlotte Bronte

BLIC is open to female barristers who wish to support each other through a variety of means in achieving their goals. It is a space for open, honest discussion on a confidential basis, and peer support between women some of whom are parents. It does not require an oath of allegiance to Sheryl Sandberg or devotion to any philosophy. It is open to each Circle to define its own values and goals. Here is how BLIC defined its core values last year: 

  1. To provide a meaningful support network to each other: SUPPORT;

  2. To engage with each other honestly and confidentially to foster trust in our Circle: TRUST;

  3. To share learning and experience and 'best practice' with each other: SHARE;

  4. To respect each other's views and values and to engage in debate in a respectful manner: RESPECT;

  5. To engage with all Circle meetings and projects with a spirit of POSITIVITY.

The Circle meets about every 10 to 12 weeks. It has enjoyed support from the Bar Council and Middle Temple in its early days, for which the Circle wishes to express its thanks. It has a dedicated private web space within the Lean In website and networking socials take place when possible. Its forty or so members are successful and ambitious barristers in a wide array of sets.

The level of debate, as one might expect of any group of barristers, has been truly energising and thought-provoking. As someone who prides herself on seeing the very many sides of a story, I have been amazed to discover sides I had not considered before, which is in no small measure down to the thoughtful and inspiring contributions of my Circle members. 

"Progress is not inevitable. It's the result of decades of slow, tireless, often frustrating and unheralded work." President Barack Obama 

Social collective consciousness around the experience of women in society, and not just at the Bar, is increasing. Currently, the media seems to be interested in stories of both overt and subtle or nuanced forms of discrimination. Can any of us forget the fierce debate generated by the barrister who called out a solicitor on LinkedIn? The judiciary is keen to talk about gender diversity on the bench. The next President of our Supreme Court is awaited with bated breath. Law firms are moving to innovative models of employee-employer relationship. The issue is perhaps 'having a moment'. But the Bar often feels like it exists in a special bubble in which normal rules don't quite apply and where those on the outside don't quite understand. 

There has certainly been ample food for thought within the Circle in recent times, whether reflecting on the existence of a pay gap at the Bar, the pace of change, access to justice, the American election and its aftermath, and the intense period of political change within this country as well. Sometimes the question 'is there a problem?' is just as important as any solution and will elicit many different answers within BLIC. As I say, this has made for enriching and stimulating discussion including as to the fear of sticking one's head above a parapet and the need to guard against overreaction and complacence. A heady cocktail of issues for all of us then. 

‪"A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men." Gloria Steinem

It has been a pleasure to discuss and share experiences ranging from the dismal (including a huge variation in practice and policy within various chambers, the attrition rate of female barristers in their thirties and stereotyping or pigeon-holing of female practitioners) to the inspiring (mutual support by peers and seniors, encouragement in taking silk or in other career development, innovative listing practices and Circle members making real change happen). 

If you are interested in becoming a member of this Lean In Circle or lending it support as a mentor, we would be delighted to hear from you

BLIC warmly welcomes the support and input ofanypractitioner at the Bar.

We are also delighted to support the Bar Council's initiative:#payitforward

Eleena Misra is a barrister, Elected Member of the Bar Council 2017-2020, Vice-Chair Bar Council's Law Reform Committee and founder of of BLIC