Support for diversity initiatives has to come from the upper levels of the barristers’ profession, with a top QC warning of a “teststerone overdose” in the wake of a young female advocate accusing some men of “behaving as though they are on a stag do” when working with women.
Meanwhile, an all-woman discussion panel heard that it was time the legal profession actively promoted women lawyers, and that senior male colleagues should “tell them they are talented” when that was the case to boost their confidence.
Writing yesterday in The Times, Lord Pannick QC said “this overdose of testosterone is a serious problem” as it deterred women from joining the profession when they heard “allegations of harassment and bullying”.
He added: “The perception that the robing room still retains some of the less pleasant characteristics of a changing room after a men’s rugby match inevitably has an adverse effect on career choices.”
Lord Pannick was responding to criticisms by Joanna Hardy, a criminal law barrister at Red Lion chambers in London, whose tweets about sexism in the law generated considerable national newspaper coverage in the last week.
Ms Hardy made a number of points aimed at male colleagues, including: “Don’t behave like you’re on a stag do. If you’re a male in a male-heavy case, don’t ask the female counsel to fetch the coffee/pour your water.
“Try to remember their names. Don’t make repetitive jokes about breasts or skirts. Don’t communicate solely in innuendo.”
Another was: “’You’re worse than my wife’ is not an acceptable way to conclude a debate about complex legal provisions.”
In still another, she urged: “If you’re a senior female member of the bar or female judge, encourage those behind you.
“Talk about how you managed families/relatives/stress/career breaks/bravado at the bar. Lend a hand. Or an ear. Speak on a panel. Write an article. Mentor. Help.”
Lord Pannick referred to comments made by Chris Henley QC , the chairman of the Criminal Bar Association earlier this month, about “complaints that male judges are belittling junior women advocates in court”.
He also referred to a speech this week  by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett, who spoke about the problem of sexism and the need to call out judges who do not behave appropriately in court.
Lord Pannick said: “There is a danger that if you spend all day accusing witnesses of lying, you take no prisoners in your personal relations with your colleagues.
“The femininity of the opposing lawyer becomes as good a basis for discomforting her as any other distinguishing characteristic. It is the morality of the playground.”
The peer suggested that the Bar Council create a mentoring panel of senior women barristers, and the Lord Chief Justice a similar panel of senior women judges, to advise aggrieved women counsel.
Responding to Lord Pannick’s article, the Bar Council said in a statement that it sponsored a retention panel aimed at assisting women and comprising male and female barristers “of a range of levels of seniority and practice areas”.
It also noted a growing number of regional women’s groups at the Bar, such as a mentoring scheme run by Western Circuit Women’s Forum.
Meanwhile, at a panel discussion hosted by Felicity Gerry QC of Carmelite Chambers in London, a number of senior women in the legal field highlighted the challenges of remaining in the workplace.
Brie Stevens-Hoare QC, diversity champion at Hardwicke Chambers, said men had to be involved: “As senior women [we should encourage] senior men to very consciously combat unconscious bias, telling women that they are talented, offering to mentor them; to be conscious about promoting women.”
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said women brought a fresh approach: “I think we want women because they are different… because our values and way of doing things is different to men’s.
“Men have run the world for the last few thousand years and haven’t done terribly well at it… That means being more inclusive, listening more, and about family values…
“Doing things differently… in a quite revolutionary way.”