What is the hidden impact of the menopause at the Bar?

Fri, 28 Feb 2020

Could menopause be impacting on the poor rates of retention of women at senior levels?

We know that retention rates for women at the Bar are poor. Women come into the profession in high numbers (there has been an approximately 50:50 gender split of those called to the Bar maintained since around 2000[1]), but by 15 years call that drops to around 30% of barristers who are female, and only approximately 15% of all silks were women as at 2019[2].

There is a lot of discussion about the impact of having children on women at the Bar, and the realities of trying to work part-time, or flexibly, when (or if) women return after having children. However, there is very little discussion about the possible impact of the menopause.

In my view this is both unsurprising, and incredibly shocking. It is unsurprising, because menopause is still, sadly, a real taboo subject in our society. However, with increasing HR pressure on employers to have menopause at work policies, perhaps times are changing. It is shocking because, unlike childbirth and childcare, going through the menopause is something that will happen to ALL women at the Bar. 3 in 4 women will experience symptoms of menopause, and 1 in 4 will experience significant symptoms. We should also consider the timing of menopause. Whilst this will be different for all women, the average age to go through the menopause is 51, meaning that many women will be experiencing menopausal and peri-menopausal symptoms in their mid to late 40s.

So what are the symptoms of menopause? Hot flushes and the end of periods right? Well, yes, but also, and far more relevantly in the workplace,

  • Loss of confidence
  • Loss of concentration
  • Difficulties sleeping
  • Mood changes, including anxiety
  • Physical symptoms such as tiredness, headaches, joint stiffness.

It therefore seems that just as women are reaching a point in their careers where they might be thinking about a silk application, or applying for a senior judicial appointment, they may also be experiencing a tangible dip in their usual performance (as a result of lack of sleep, poor concentration etc.) and a huge crisis of confidence. In the current drive to encourage more women to apply for senior positions, it seems obvious (once you think or know about it) that we should be thinking about whether the menopause might in some cases be impacting those low application rates.

Further, even putting applications for promotion to one side, don’t we need to be doing more (or at least doing something) to support women who might be facing different degrees of internal struggle, to help them come out the other side and still be at the Bar?

I certainly think so, and for that reason No5 are implementing a new policy of providing menopause training to all our clerks and staff. A significant proportion of clerks are men (which is a separate conversation) and often young men, meaning they probably shouldn’t’ be blamed if they have barely heard of the menopause, let alone have any real understanding of what impacts it might have on the barristers they support. The Bar should be somewhere with the flexibility to give women extra time and space, to get work done, to work more flexibly for a period, or to rest and recover after a trial etc. However, that is never going to happen if our clerks don’t know that would be helpful. At the moment it must be very difficult for women to raise the subject, and I expect many don’t. At No5 we hope that by making menopause awareness training mandatory for all clerks, we will be able to break down the taboo; starting conversations about what women have been secretly going through for generations, and what clerks and chambers might now be able to do, to take some of the pressure off or provide support.

[1] ‘Momentum Measures: Creating a Diverse Profession’, The Bar Council, United Kingdom, 2015, p.1, https://www.barcouncil.org.uk/resource/momentum-measures.html, (accessed 28th February 2020).

[2] ‘Statistics on Practising Barristers’, Bar Standards Board, United Kingdom, n.d., https://www.barstandardsboard.org.uk/news-publications/research-and-statistics/statistics-about-the-bar/practising-barristers.html (accessed 28th February 2020).

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