Sexual harassment and discrimination still a problem at the Bar, report women barristers

updated on 22 July 2016

Sexual harassment and discrimination is still happening at the Bar, a wide-ranging survey of women barristers has found.

The Bar Standards Board (BSB) surveyed over 1,300 female barristers – almost a quarter of women working at the Bar. Some two fifths of respondents said that they had been subject to sexual harassment, but only a fifth went on to report it, with others remaining silent for fear that speaking out might damage their careers. Of those who did report the unacceptable behaviour, only half were happy with the response. The BSB is now writing to every chambers in England and Wales to urge them to improve their workplace cultures and compliance with equality rules.  

As the Guardian reports, examples reported by the survey’s respondents included: “A male solicitor told me in exchange for favours he could give me work”; “I experienced extreme sexual harassment during pupillage from one of my pupil supervisors”; and “It was an occupational hazard that senior males might act inappropriately with young women at the Bar.”

The respondents also reported serious cases of discrimination at the Bar. Comments included: “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”; and “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.”

However, the survey did at least find that awareness of maternity and parental leave policies was high. And to improve on this, the Bar Council has launched a flexible working guide for chambers, which proposes reduced rents for barristers seeking to work reduced hours or work away from chambers due to caring responsibilities.

Dr Vanessa Davies, the BSB’s director general, said: “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.”