A Bar Council report on the working lives of women barristers has revealed more clearly than ever the shocking sexism that some of them have faced during their careers, particularly while pupils.
The report 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 that although most of the examples of sexism, harassment and discrimination quoted in the report were historic, “experiences of inappropriate behaviour within the profession continue to exist”.
One senior barrister told how a pupil master came in on Monday morning and told her, after she had been to the hairdressers, that she looked “quite f*ckable” with her hair like that.
Other women barristers complained they were “pushed into sex cases by the clerks and solicitors because of the perception that when the jury sees a woman they presume the defendant can’t be guilty because otherwise she wouldn’t defend him”.
The report, entitled ‘Snapshot: The Experience of Self-Employed Women at the Bar’, was based on focus groups with 73 women barristers of mixed ages and written questionnaires with 12 others. The groups were held last year in London, Leeds, Manchester and Bristol.
It made seven recommendations, based on suggestions from the women barristers who took part. They include mentoring of junior women by senior women, facilitating access to advice on developing a sustainable practice, establishing “more senior and more visible role female role models” and promoting women’s marketing networks.
Mr MacDonald commented: “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”.
He went on: “Today the main barriers for women lie in publicly-funded practice, ironically the area in which women disproportionally most practice, with cuts to legal aid and the cost and accessibility of childcare.
“Despite the fact that some women had negative experiences and worked in a very challenging environment, the women who participated in this research clearly loved the Bar and wanted to suggest constructive solutions to make things better for other women in the profession.”
While views on pupillage were “generally positive”, many of the report’s worst examples of sexism were linked to training.
One barrister said that when she attended court, the solicitor informed her that she had been “sold to him” by the senior clerk “on the basis that I had a great pair of legs”.
Another 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”.
However, it was not only male barristers who were criticised for their behaviour towards female pupils. One recalled how she and another pupil were told that “women in chambers” had complained that they were “too glamorous”.
A further story concerned a “very senior” woman barrister who went on to be a “very respected” judge, and who organised a series of social drinks in chambers with solicitors.
“The boys were to be upstairs meeting the solicitors, pouring the drinks, and the girls were to be downstairs in the kitchen. The male supervisors immediately dealt with the issue by speaking to her.
“But of course all that happened was that she loathed us and we really upset a senior silk… it meant that our time was nailed, we were not going to be taken on. In fact that’s what happened, we were the only two who didn’t get taken on.”
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.
More positively, female barristers qualifying today have a much better experience than their predecessors, the report found, with reports of “recent sexual harassment rare”. Such incidents as there were reported were more verbal than physical, with “the prevailing view” that things were changing as the older generation made way for the next.
Many women involved in the focus groups complained about being pushed into certain practice areas, particularly sex abuse cases. “I am aware of a number of female friends whose careers have definitely been pushed towards sex cases by their clerks.
“It was my choice to specialise in crime… it was not my choice to specialise in sex cases and my gender is a significant factor in this type of work being sent to me early in my career.”
There was also concern about the adverse effect dealing with such cases had on women’s personal lives.
Another practice area young women barristers complained they were forced into was family. “My chambers director asked me repeatedly when he saw me, ‘how’s family law going’? Despite the fact I have never done family law. All our clerks are female and the only thing I notice is that if you are a girl you will be considered for family whether you want to be or not, and I do not.”
All the barristers involved in the focus groups said there was a still a “subtle expectation” that women would do family, while men would do other civil work.
One barrister, after being instructed in her first big fraud case, was recently told by “various senior members of the chambers” that she “must be sleeping with the solicitor to get that case”.
The report also covered the difficulties faced by women barristers in achieving a good work/life balance, and experiences in applying to become silks and sitting as judges.
One complained that: “At my chambers there was four of us applying for silk at the same time, one girl and three men, and [the head of chambers] telephoned each of the referees of the men personally to speak to them. He didn’t even know who mine were.”
Another complained that, in her role as a judge, she was told she was appointed “to make up the numbers”, and there were “still very many able men” who could not get appointed “because they are not lesbians”.
Another barrister, who sits as a recorder, said she was “appalled by the comments” made at lunch to her, and it was “as though you are invisible” and “a pupil again”.
One theme that ran through all levels, the report noted, was a lack of confidence – whether in challenging clerks or colleagues in practice development, or applying for more senior roles.
Different chambers’ cultures were also a significant factor, and the report suggested that in those chambers that did not have senior female members, women barristers felt disadvantaged.