At No5 Chambers we are introducing mandatory menopause awareness training for all clerks and line managers, and also offering this to any member of chambers or staff who wish to participate.
When I joined the Equality and Diversity Committee in Chambers last year, it was to take a lead on the issue of retention, and specifically to try to improve the retention of groups who become less and less represented as they move up in seniority at the Bar. Other members of the Equality and Diversity Committee had already undertaken a recent overhaul of our policies to better support members of Chambers, pupils and staff whilst at work; in addition to introducing ‘Wellbeing’ and ‘Respect’ policies, designed to create a healthier and more supportive working environment, they had created provision for what is effectively paid parental leave, putting in place a progressive and fairly radical policy, which is now working really well.
My job was therefore to work out what other strategies we could employ to improve retention of under-represented groups. When it came to improving retention of women, I felt that all the focus is around women who leave the Bar to have children and then struggle to come back, or to continue to thrive in their careers once they are juggling childcare commitments too. However, whilst there is a clear pinch point for retention of women, typically around their 30s, due to them starting families, the numbers seem to continue to fall off the higher up the profession you go. This could be ongoing struggles with childcare and juggling family life, but I began to question if that was the only reason that only approximately 16% of silks were women as of last year (according to figures given on the Bar Standard’s Board website). Once I discovered the steps other industries are taking to reduce the impact of menopause at work, I couldn’t believe that no one in our progressive chambers, let alone the profession, seemed to be on top of this issue.
Most people are probably aware that the symptoms of menopause involve hot flushes and the end of periods. However, many (including lots of pre-menopausal women) are unaware that the symptoms also include,
These can be far more relevant in the workplace, and could easily be missed or attributed to something else.
The difficulty is that menopause is still, sadly, a real taboo subject in our society. However, we need to talk about it 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, a time when many would normally be applying for silk, or senior judicial positions. In the current drive to encourage more women to apply for senior positions, it seems suddenly obvious that we should be asking whether the menopause might in some cases be impacting low female application rates.
The training will be designed to promote awareness of the symptoms and effects of menopause, and, even more importantly, to work with clerks and staff line managers to consider if or how they can talk sensitively to women about the menopause and what changes they might be able to make to support women going through it.
We hope that menopause training will make a real difference to women’s experiences. A significant proportion of clerks are men, and often young men, meaning they 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. However, I believe the Bar is somewhere where there should be 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. At the moment it must be very difficult for women to ask for help or support and I expect many don’t. We intend to start to break down the taboo and allow conversations about what women have been going through for generations on their own.
Louise Corfield, Barrister, No 5 Chambers
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