Female Barristers Still Face Discrimination At Work

Even lawyers themselves are not immune to discrimination at work.

The Bar Standards Board (BSB), the regulators of the barristers profession, recently carried out a survey of over 1,300 female barristers. Following the results received, the legal regulator is to write to every Chambers in England & Wales, to urge them to improve their compliance with equality rules and laws.

The results from the anonymous online questionnaire answered by nearly a quarter of all female barristers found that discrimination and sexual harassment were still very much present at the Bar.

The survey found that recruitment practices were generally found to be fair. Similarly, an awareness of parental leave and maternity leave policies was said to be very high, with most chambers surveyed acting in line with the relevant legislation. Despite that, many women at the bar felt that actually taking maternity leave had a negative impact upon their career, and the perception of them as dedicated to their profession.

It was in the treatment of many female barristers, and in the response to such issues, that problems were found. Two – fifths of those surveyed said that they had suffered a form of harassment. Only one – fifth reported it: “concern about the impact on their career was the most common reason cited by respondents for not reporting harassment.” Furthemore, “half of those survey participants who did report harassment were not satisfied with the response.”

Among the comments recorded by female barristers in the survey response were: “a male solicitor told me in exchange for favours he could give me work.” Another female barrister stated that “I experienced extreme sexual harassment during pupillage from one of my pupil supervisors,” with another response being that “it was an occupational hazard that senior males might act inappropriately with young women at the bar.”

With regards to direct gender discrimination, the survey found the same pattern. On average, more than two in every five female barristerssaid that they had experienced discrimination. Again, only half that number actually complained. Again, a fear that it would negatively impact upon their careers was cited as the main reason for not making a complaint.

One response recorded for discrimination was that a “solicitor said to my clerks that he would not instruct a woman. My clerks protested. He apologised. My male colleagues refused to do the piece of work.” Another barrister said that “women in my chambers are pigeon-holed into the lower paid, publicly funded ‘care’ work. They are seen by the clerks as the secondary earners in their families, even though this is often not the case.”

Despite the gender equality of 2016, and the legislation and regulations concerning gender based discrimination and harassment, the result was disappointing for the BSB. Despite the Equalities Act (2010), and the work of women such as US First Lady Michelle Obama, it is sad and shocking that such discrimination still occurs at all, in any occupation or workplace, in 2016.

In response to the anonymous survey, Dr Vanessa Davies, Director General of the BSB, said that the “equality rules were intended in part to improve the retention of 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 … 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.” Such sentiments have been echoed in various forms over the years by the Association of Women Barristers, and similar groups.

Despite practising law, even lawyers themselves are not immune from the law. In a professional that should show the highest standards, and should uphlold the law, to be in breach of that very law with regard to equality and discrimination legislation hardly does the profession any favours. In this day and age, with women occupying ever more senior positions in business and government, and with more frequency than in tears gone by, such behaviour by some members of the Bar is also unacceptable.

The BSB has yet to comment in what actions it will take in response to the survey. The Chair of the Bar, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, stated in response that some “of the experiences documented by the BSB are historical, but there is no room for complacency. This profession, like others, continues to face challenges with harassment and discrimination.

“Although the position is changing for the better, women still account for a very small number of members of the senior judiciary, and they make up only 13% of all QCs. The judiciary and the legal profession from which it is drawn should reflect the communities they seek to serve, and that is why the Bar Council is committed to doing all it can to support women at the bar at all stages in their professional careers at the bar. We need to aim for a profession of all, and for all.”