The new social media guidance from the Bar Standards Board (BSB) “will do little to protect women’s voices an increasingly digitised world”, two leading female barristers have argued.
Describing the lack of explicit reference to online misogyny as “a missed opportunity”, they said female barristers were often “held to a higher standard than their male counterparts” on social media.
“The herd mentality appears to suggest that men can opine on a wide range of issues whereas women’s views are narrowly constructed and policed.
“Sadly, this descends into personal attacks where sexist and misogynistic attitudes come to the fore.”
The new guidance came into force in September, with a focus on tone more than substance.
Writing for the Bar Council’s Counsel magazine, Stephanie Hayward, a criminal barrister at Deka Chambers who leads gender equality group Behind the Gown, and Dr Charlotte Proudman, a barrister specialising in male violence against women and children at Goldsmith Chambers, said the lack of explicit reference to online misogyny was “a missed opportunity, which does little to tackle this pervasive issue”.
Dr Proudman has been vocal in calling out online abuse directed at her and wrote about it in Counsel earlier this year. “Since that article – in response to separate posts on X/Twitter – one of the authors of this article has been called a ‘w****r’ and ‘vile’ by members of our profession.
“The ease with which such comments are fired off exposes the lack of – and urgent need for – BSB regulation.”
The two barristers said the guidance warned against offensive, harassing, bullying comments, and discriminatory conduct which could alienate vulnerable groups, but “women are not referred to, and misogyny is not given the prominence” they requested.
Behind the Gown last year called on the BSB to highlight the link between online misogyny and female barristers who speak out on issues affecting women in the law.
Ms Hayward and Dr Proudman said: “Without expressly acknowledging the risk of misogynistic abuse that may flow from what women say, online, we fear the social media guidance will do little to protect women’s voices in an increasingly digitised world.”
The guidance was “not as impactful as we had hoped” and the “interspersal of case studies adds to, rather than reduces, its opacity”.
It did not reflect the “unequivocal evidence – much of which the regulator has been instrumental in obtaining – that bullying and harassment on and offline” remained an issue for women at the Bar.
“If the BSB fails to take online sexist and misogynistic conduct seriously enough to acknowledge its existence in the handbook or guidance, this signals a culture of impunity to our male peers who behave in such ways and to women who have nowhere to turn to.
“Without this public acknowledgement, how can the Bar tackle the root cause of this cultural problem? Where are the mechanisms for change?”
The barristers said the BSB had decided to take no action on Dr Proudman’s complaints about tweets from over 50 “predominantly male” barristers.
“Despite acknowledging their posts as ‘unpleasant and inflammatory’, the BSB said they did not meet the threshold for regulatory action.”
The barristers went on: “What can be done? Firstly, for the workplace to be safe, secure, inclusive, and diverse, there must be clear expectations of behaviours and conduct for barristers on social media.
“We note there is a statement of expected behaviour published for and by the judiciary, making it clear that people will be treated fairly with courtesy and respect and where diversity is recognised and valued.
“A similar document with appropriate recognition of specific inequalities, would benefit the Bar.”
The barristers said the issue required ‘joined up thinking’ across the profession, and noted the statement made in July by Nick Vineall KC, chair of the Bar Council, in support of Dr Proudman that “personalised attacks and sexist or bullying behaviour” must be stamped out.
The BSB had also said, in a report on bullying and harassment in 2022, that a ‘collaborative and coordinated approach’ with the Bar Council would be helpful in effecting lasting change.
“It is therefore disappointing that the sentiments shared by the Bar chair were missing from the BSB’s social media guidance – on an issue where change is much needed.”