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How do black feminist theory principles encourage black females to become and remain barristers in England and Wales?

This essay was submitted in response to Feminist Law's first annual essay competition and placed second.


Introduction:

Black feminist theory originated from spreading ideology challenging the suppression and dismissal of black women. Many are subject to the view that black women are the most deprived in the social world, therefore there should be more discussions to challenge this suppression. [1] The purpose of the black feminist movement is to liberate and restore confidence in black women; highlighting the success of black women in life despite the stack of odds being against them. [2] Leading feminist Crenshaw had looked at the treatment made about black women and the impact it has upon their lives. [3]

Black and mixed race barristers in England and Wales amount to a percentage of 6%. [4] This essay will demonstrate through statistics and data why the black feminist theory is vital to ensure that black women thrive in the legal profession. Further, this essay will look at three principles of the black feminist theory and the impact that they have on black female barristers specialising in criminal law. Firstly, black feminists advocated the importance of social justice. Secondly, all their principles had been linked to equal rights and opportunities. Thirdly, the importance in highlighting the impact of intersectionality on all.

 

Social Justice and Criminal Justice

Crenshaw highlights that there are intersectional experiences through race and gender discrimination. It is important to not neglect the difference for this reason - black women’s experiences of racism are different to black men’s experiences. [5] The feminist theory aims to spread awareness and knowledge surfacing for black women through being underrepresented in society.  Understanding the difference between these experiences will enable you to understand how justice can be achieved for either individual. As a result of social perspectives and stereotypes the experiences of both genders will differ. This essay will be looking in more depth about the experience of black women and achieving a career as a criminal law barrister.

An important way to implement social justice is through reforming the current state of now. Action is required to ensure that it is more accessible for black women to become criminal barristers, but also to remain in the profession. Through the engagement of social justice it can challenge the “hierarchies of power, transforming academic institutions, advancing a new kind of organisational leadership and reinvigorating grassroots mobilisation efforts for social change”. [6] This is essential for black women wanting a career as a barrister for three reasons. Firstly, being self-employed means that they will need to understand how to run their own business, network to get clients, and manage their own caseload. Secondly, the barrister field is historically evident to be a white male dominated arena. Therefore, black women are highlighting their capabilities through skills, knowledge and experience as to why they should be a barrister. Finally, it is influential and inspiring to the next generation to see black women break the glass ceiling. [7] The black feminist movement highlights the importance of social justice, therefore the evidence of black women becoming barristers shows them challenging stereotypes and misconceptions. 

 

Equal Rights and Opportunities in Chambers

It cannot be dismissed that any individual cannot be subject to injustice. In this view your identity will access you to unconscious privileges that one may not be socially aware of. However, as a black woman, despite the personal injustices faced, they also have to overcome the burden of white supremacy and racialised class oppression in comparison to fellow black males. [8] The purpose of the black feminist movement is to challenge the barriers that make it harder for black women to reach their goals. The purpose of the black feminist movement is focused upon the experiences and lack of support provided for black women. In respect of the barrister route, chambers have actively been progressing through upholding black events, explaining in depth about EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) and encouraging applications from those disadvantaged backgrounds. Recently, St Ives Chambers had hosted a black history month workshop where barristers would speak with you about your Curriculum Vitae and provide advice for application season. [9] In this view, through chambers directly appealing to black women shows they are making conscious changes to challenge the system as it is now. Therefore, it is important that chambers understand the aims and objectives of the black feminist movement in order to attract black women to apply to their chambers. In achieving those specific aims will keep her interested in continuing her practice as a barrister at that chamber.

A question that can be considered important in understanding career progression: Is structural inequality the reason that women are not making it into senior positions in anywhere near the same numbers as men? Inequality can be reflected through unequal laws which affect women, as well as unfair institutional systems which prevent women from progressing. [10] The barrister route is evidently a career where there are not many black women within (as well as black males). There is still progression for chambers to improve internally and for black women to remain confident in themselves to step up in this career ladder. The black feminist theory helps aspiring and existing barristers to continue breaking the cycle, creating change within chambers and progressing in the legal field. Through barrister chambers providing equal opportunities and support will provide a safe environment, a resource of support and encourage black women (and all women) to remain at that barrister chamber.

 

Intersectionality and the Bar Standards Board

The intersectionality theory allows us to examine how systems of power and oppression co-construct each other to create complex and unique forms of systemic harm and injustice. [11] As highlighted in the previous points, there are additional factors that are subconsciously implemented due to a woman being black. This harm and injustice impacts these black barristers directly, whether future black females want to go into this career, and chambers for not being accessible to all. The Bar Standards Board publishing data and statistics about the difference in applications and acceptance to be a barrister highlights the significant need for change. [12] Through accessing this material it is important for chambers to act upon making changes internally - through their policies and acceptance of candidates for pupillage, tenancy or barristers. The statistic of there only being 6% of barristers constituting to black or mixed race shows that there is more progression to be made in the barrister route. For chambers increasing diversity and being inclusive it is highly essential that they appeal to aspiring barristers that are underrepresented (black, mixed race, female). Chambers can do this in a variety of ways: hosting events at chambers, mentorship schemes, mini pupillages with recognition for underrepresented applicants. It is in this view that it is important that chambers understand that their ethical policies should be reflected physically in the way that barristers at that chamber set looks.

After Crenshaw introduced the term intersectionality in 1989, it was widely adopted because it encompasses simultaneous experiences of the multiple oppressions faced by Black women. It is in Crenshaw's view that Black women are discriminated against through a combination of both racism and sexism. [13] The difficult challenge that black women have to face accessing the barrister route is a result of being black and being a woman. Both factors are identified by the Bar Standards Board as constituting disadvantaged backgrounds. [14] Therefore, it is more difficult for those individuals to access the barrister route and there will be more challenges to overcome. It is in this view that it is important that chambers and the legal profession actively implement ethnic, diverse and inclusive policies. As a result, the black feminist theory encourages and inspires young women to become barristers for three reasons. Firstly, it is a rewarding profession. Being from a disadvantaged background and becoming a barrister shows they have the capability of excellence. Secondly, being a barrister actively practises principles of the black feminist theory. A black female barrister is showing social justice through the achievement of being a barrister, they are paving a way for equal rights (in being black and female), and showing intersectionality through creating a diverse profession. Finally, it is showing progression of the Barrister profession and creating evidence that black women can be (and remain) as barristers.

 

Conclusion:

It is evident that black feminist theories encourage black females to become barristers; through the principles of social justice, equal rights, and intersectionality. This essay has explored these three principles in depth and how it supports female progression in a career at the Bar. The purpose of the feminist movement can be seen through understanding black women's experience through differentiating from class (socio-economic factors) and race (white women and black males). Barrister chambers have begun to encourage under representation at the Bar through EDI policies, hosting events and black women joining their chambers. Through this practice it has enabled black female barristers to achieve their career goal and historical perceptions on what a barristers physical appearance is.

Furthermore, despite the low percentage in black barristers the feminist theory principles encourage diversity at the Bar. Firstly, it is an act of progression to see black women in the barrister progression because for generations it was non-existent. Justice is being seen through the Bar becoming more accessible for those from under-represented backgrounds. Secondly, it is important and essential that equal rights are evident within chambers. It is more important for black women for the reason of race and gender equality. Therefore, chambers can achieve this through policies and positive practices at each set. Finally, it cannot be ignored that black women face oppression. The Bar should be made more accessible for black women to enter and remain within the profession.


[1] Evelyn M Simien, ‘Black Feminist Theory: Charting a course for black women's studies in political science’ (2004) Routledge Taylor and Francis Group < Black Feminist Theory (tandfonline.com)> accessed 2nd December 2023

[2] Naomi Schiller, ‘A Short History of Black Feminist Scholars’ (2000) The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education <A Short History of Black Feminist Scholars on JSTOR> accessed 1st December 2023

[3] Kimberle Crenshaw, ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’ (1991) Stanford Law Review <https://doi.org/10.2307/1229039 > accessed 2nd December 2023

[4] Ministry of Justice ‘Diversity of the Judiciary: Legal Professions, new appointments and current post holders’ (Official Statistics, July 2021) <Diversity of the judiciary: Legal professions, new appointments and current post-holders – 2021 Statistics - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) > accessed 3rd December 2023

[5] Stewart M Colesand Josh Paesk, ‘Intersectional Invisibility Revisited: How Group Prototypes Lead to the Erasure and Exclusion of Black Women’ (2020) American Psychological Association <https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/tps-tps0000256.pdf> accessed 2nd December 2023

[6] Amara Ochefu, ‘The History of intersectionality and the Black Feminists behind it’ (Malala, 2021) <The history of intersectionality and the Black feminists behind it — Assembly | Malala Fund5-Tenets-of-Black-Feminism.pdf (unc.edu)> accessed 2 December 2023

[7] Michael V Sternberg KC KCFO, ‘Talent on its own is not enough - Barbara Mills KC’ (COUNSEL, September 2023) <‘Talent on its own is not enough’: Barbara Mills KC | COUNSEL | The Magazine of the Bar of England and Wales (counselmagazine.co.uk)> accessed 1st December 2023

[8] Masterclass ‘Black Feminism: Black Feminists and the Movements History’ (MasterClass, October 2022) <Black Feminism: Black Feminists and the Movement's History - 2023 - MasterClass> accessed 1 December 2023

[9] St Ives Chambers, ‘Black History Month Workshop’ (October 2023) <Black History Month 2023 - St Ives Chambers> accessed 27 November 2023

[10] Law Careers, ‘Feminist Lawyers: The fight for gender equality in the legal profession’ (Law Careers Net, June 2017) <Feminist lawyers: the fight for gender equality in the legal profession - Features (lawcareers.net)> accessed 2 December 2023

[11] Ibid.5

[12] Bar Standards Board, ‘Diversity of the Bar Standards Board (BSB) workforce and board members’ (Bar Standards Board, December 2022) <BSB-Board-and-Staff-Diversity-Report-as-of-December-2022final.pdf (barstandardsboard.org.uk)> accessed 1st December 2023

[13] Sharon Smith, ‘Black Feminism and Intersectionality’ (International Socialist Review) <Black feminism and intersectionality| International Socialist Review (isreview.org)> accessed 1 December 2023

[14] Bar Standards Board, ‘Diversity at the Bar 2022’ (Bar Standards Board, January 2023) <BSB-Report-on-Diversity-at-the-Bar-2022-FinalVersionv2.pdf (barstandardsboard.org.uk)> accessed 3rd December 2023

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