Almost half of female barristers have experienced discrimination, major report finds

Dr Vanessa Davies

Dr Davies: “we cannot tolerate” situation where women treated unfairly

Almost half of female barristers (45%) have experienced discrimination at work and 40% have experienced harassment, a major report by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) has found.

The report, based on an online survey of over 1,300 barristers, found that 78% of discrimination victims failed to report it and 80% of those who had experienced harassment.

On discrimination, two-thirds of women who reported it were dissatisfied with the response.

“Concern about the impact on their career, that reporting would not achieve anything, and attitudes at the Bar towards discrimination (and the reporting of discrimination), were the most common reasons for not reporting.”

Where details of the discrimination were given, three-fifths related to incidents within the barristers’ chambers or organisation, with the majority of internal discrimination relating to “clerks and work allocation”.

For those who reported harassment, half were dissatisfied with the outcome, with the common issues being “inadequate response”, failure to take the complaint seriously and impact on their careers.

Where details of the harassment were given, half of the incidents were internal, and a “high proportion said that they had experienced harassment as pupils”.

Dr Vanessa Davies, director general of the BSB, said: “We cannot tolerate a situation where women are treated unfairly in the workplace.

“Lack of diversity and discriminatory working culture and practices impair the Bar’s ability to meet the needs of the public and could deter potentially great candidates from pursuing a career at the Bar.”

Elsewhere in Women at the Bar, the report found that almost 70% of female barristers had considered leaving the profession.

“Respondents who were BME, who had caring responsibilities for children, and who said they had experienced discrimination and/or harassment at the Bar were all more likely to have considered leaving. The most common causes for considering leaving the Bar were for family reasons and/or the difficulty of combining a career at the Bar with caring responsibilities.

“Addressing and changing elements of the culture of the Bar/legal system were cited by many respondents as key to the retention of women at the Bar.”

On a more positive note, the majority of employers (over 60%) had a flexible working policy in place and most barristers rated these policies highly. A larger majority (over 80%) had a maternity/parental leave policy in place, with most rating it positively.

Over three-quarters said recruitment in their organisation was fair and objective, with self-employed barristers the most likely to be positive.

Almost 90% of organisations had an equality policy in place, though awareness of harassment policies was far lower.

Dr Davies added: “The equality rules were intended in part to improve the retention or women at the Bar but, as we know, men outnumber women by two to one and this has not changed significantly over the last six years.”

She said there were “some encouraging findings” in the report, but some were “very disappointing”, and she would be writing to all multi-tenant chambers in England and Wales to ensure equality policies were properly implemented.

Chantal-Aimee Doerries QC, chairman of the Bar Council, commented: “Some of the experiences documented by the BSB are historic, but there is no room for complacency.

“This profession, like others, continues to face challenges around harassment and discrimination. It is a positive sign, however, that women now feel able to come forward with their experiences, and I believe that we are moving in the right direction.”

A Bar Council report on the working lives of women barristers released in July last year revealed shocking anecdotal evidence of the sexism that some of them have faced, particularly while pupils.


    Readers Comments

  • Frank Maher says:

    A note of caution is important when looking at headline statistics. Paragraph 14 of the report says – ‘The sample was self-selecting rather than random due to the nature of the online survey methodology. As a result, it is impossible to rule out non-response bias, and the profile and experiences of the survey respondents may not be representative of the whole population of female barristers. Instead, they should be treated as indicative of the experience of the female Bar rather than as a statistically representative sample.’ Without comment from an expert statistician I am unclear what the figures actually mean, beyond, obviously, raising cause for concern which might merit further investigation. I do not see how conclusions can be drawn beyond that.

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