Young female barristers have been urged to stand firm in the profession despite a widespread prevalence of sexual harassment at the Bar, especially at the level of inappropriate comments.
In a lecture yesterday evening on whether the Bar was too complacent about harassment and whether processes to deal with it were fit for purpose, Professor Jo Delahunty QC said she believed its existence to be extensive because of the large volume of incidents described privately to her.
As a prominent campaigner on the subject, a number of women had confided in her, she revealed. “All came with the words ‘I haven’t told anyone this before, but…’.”
Among several underlying features specific to barristers, including chambers culture, physical proximity and income disparity, she said the frequent power imbalance between men and women in chambers was key.
Women often supressed their feelings over an incident through fear of not receiving work or their careers being blighted. There was also evidence that women were likely to respond by leaving the profession rather than continue and live with it.
A survey by the International Bar Association found that over half of women barristers experienced bullying or sexual harassment but most did not report it for fear of repercussions.
Professor Delahunty, who was lecturing at Gresham College in London and is a practising family law barrister, was called in 1986 and took silk in 2006. She related her own numerous experiences as a young barrister, which included physical groping by a pupil supervisor.
She said she left her pupillage prematurely as a result because she did not feel safe.
Incidents included a sexist comment from a judge in a serious criminal trial, even after she had taken silk, and others she was not prepared to speak about publicly.
She gave examples of incidents confided in her by others ahead of the lecture, which she said were “the tip of the iceberg”.
Brie Stevens-Hoare QC, also called in 1986, told Professor Delahunty that in a conversation with a senior member of chambers early in her career, she was asked “not will you sleep with me but when will you sleep with me?”
The academic ridiculed the results of a freedom of information request of the BSB in 2018 which revealed that there were just two formal sexual harassment complaints in the past five years. This was manifestly unrepresentative of the true number of incidents, she suggested.
Professor Delahunty acknowledged that it was not always easy to discern the line between appropriate and predatory behaviour. “When does the helpful, constructive comment tip into the inappropriate?”.
However, she said “it’s not rocket science” in differentiating the two. Examples of inappropriate behaviour included “overly personal comments… over-familiar behaviour… offensive or intimidating gestures… insensitive jokes or pranks… unwelcome physical contact”.
She also added that sometimes men were also the targets of inappropriate sexual behaviour.
She said young women barristers could be confident the Bar Council was on their side and was making strenuous efforts to deal with the problem.
The lack of human resources departments in chambers contributed to a lack of support. The automatic duty on barristers to pass on suspected serious misconduct to the Bar Standards Board was a “block” on women reporting harassment in confidence.
She concluded that potential victims of harassment should be warned about the issue early on, perhaps at Bar school. Mentoring by senior women in the profession meant young women would not feel alone.
She said: “I think we need to hold a mirror up to our profession to make sure that [inappropriate] behaviours are called out by those that witness it and those that hear it.
“Don’t turn a blind eye to it because… it’s not comfortable to talk about it.
“If you know there is a problem with a particular member of chambers you don’t necessarily have to confront them directly… but what you can do is call in targeted training to your workplace whereby without naming names you hold a mirror up to that behaviour…
“People do want to change and if they don’t, they should be embarrassed into changing.”