Female barristers subjected to shocking levels of rampant sexism, says Bar report

Younger women are especially prone to sexist comments from men whose attitudes worsen as they rise through the ranks from junior barrister to judges

Shocking levels of rampant sexism still exist among barristers “existing in a children’s playground” who know they can get away with “grossly disrespectful” comments, according to a major Bar Council report.

Younger women are especially prone to sexist comments from men whose attitudes worsen as they rise through the ranks from junior barrister to judges. One senior practitioner shared her experience of sexual harassment as a pupil, from her pupil supervisor, after she arrived at work following a weekend haircut.

She said: “My supervisor said you look quite f*ck-able with your hair like that... He also once said, put your jacket on, I am only human... and... remind me are you a stockings or tights girl?”

 

The woman said that it would have been “pointless” to complain at the time to the “clubbable world of senior members of [chambers]… I really did not and do not believe anyone would have spoken to him, it would have been something about which I was to keep my chin up and head down.”

Another woman said: “Looking back [comments] were shocking... about dress, about wearing long boots… all considered acceptable, but they shouldn’t have been.”

One barrister said: “[There was] lots of talking to the chest area. I remember that. Someone put their hand on my knee during dinner and just the shock of it. I didn’t say anything.”

The Snapshot: the Experience of Self-Employed Women at the Bar report on the working lives of female barristers was based on focus groups with 73 women of mixed ages and written questionnaires with 12 others. The groups were held last year in London, Leeds, Manchester and Bristol.

A female barrister said: “I think that too many men at the Bar feel that they are existing in a children’s playground – [they] think they can say grossly disrespectful things because nobody is going to stop them and nothing is going to be said about it.”

Another described the Bar as “a very different world” and a “secret world”.

A lot of women felt male sexist attitudes worsened as their careers progressed, influenced by their older colleagues.

One said: “My concern with [sexist attitudes] is it carries on through the generations, junior, silk to judge. We need to stop it now. The boys in my chambers I look at them and think I don’t think they are like it when they join...”

Discrimination also still exists at the highest levels of the judiciary. The Bar Council asked if senior women had had any experience of discrimination or harassment from fellow judges, the Judicial Appointments Commission or Judicial Office.

One respondent mentioned she had encountered hostility in her role as a judge, she received comments, such as: “Well you were appointed to make up the numbers… There are still many very able men who cannot get appointed because they are not lesbians.”

Although sexism and harassment is less prevalent today several barristers said there was a “conflict” between new ways of working and the more traditional approach, with “some really good” pupil supervisors and others still speaking to pupils in a “shocking” way.

The report did find some law firms that are far better when it comes to equality at work. One participant said: “My chambers are so desperate to have and maintain women that we tend to be a valued minority.”

The report also shows the challenges women face balancing their career at the bar with childcare. One woman said her income was halved when she had children, while another said that the cost of childcare can outweigh earnings at the criminal bar. It also exposed how a “significant number” of young female barristers were forced against their will into the ‘women’s practice areas’ of family work and sex crime.

Alistair MacDonald QC, chairman of the Bar said: “Sexism, harassment and discrimination have no place in this profession and we must all work to ensure these forms of behaviour are challenged and cease forthwith.”

He said that although there was “clearly no problem in attracting women to the Bar”, the report identified new challenges, including women “being pushed into traditional ‘women’s practice areas’ and balancing career and caring responsibilities”.

The report made seven recommendations based on suggestions from the female barristers who took part, including mentoring of junior women by senior women and establishing “more senior and more visible role female role models”.