Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Sexual harassment and discrimination still rife at the Bar

Sexual harassment and discrimination still rife at the Bar


Over two-thirds of barristers considered quitting the Bar after experiencing bullying behaviour

The unfair treatment of women at the Bar needs to be addressed following widespread claims of sexual harassment and discrimination, stated a damning report from the Bar Standards Board (BSB).

Over 40 per cent of female barristers claim to have experienced bullying at the Bar, with work allocation and 'favouritism' from clerks or management towards certain barristers highlighted by respondents as undermining chambers' monitoring policies.

Many women barristers described taking maternity or parental leave as having had a negative effect upon their practice, with impacts on work allocation, progression, and income highlighted. Responses also suggested negative attitudes towards those returning from maternity leave.

The survey responses also showed that many female barristers are reluctant to report unfair treatment, with just 20 per cent raising concerns owing to fears of an impact on their careers and the prevailing attitudes at the Bar towards the reporting of harassment. The report also highlighted that levels of harassment had failed to improve significantly over the last 15 years.

Higher levels of harassment or discrimination were experienced by black and minority ethnic barristers (48 per cent), compared with their white counterparts (38 per cent). Of those that reported discrimination, 70 per cent said they had considered leaving the Bar, as did 65 per cent who had experienced harassment.

The BSB's director general, Dr Vanessa Davies, 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.'

Chairman of the Bar Council, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, added: 'Some of the experiences documented by the BSB are historic, but there is no room for complacency. This profession, like others, continues to face challenges around harassment and discrimination. It is a positive sign, however, that women now feel able to come forward with their experiences, and I believe that we are moving in the right direction.'

The online survey, launched to identify issues contributing to the lack of retention of female barristers and the effectiveness of the BSB's equality and diversity rules, attracted 1,333 responses. More than half of respondents (58 per cent) were ambivalent on the impact the equality rules had had on career progression, while more respondents disagreed (23 per cent) than agreed (13 per cent) that they had helped them remain in the profession.

'The equality rules were intended in part to improve the retention of women at the Bar,' said Davies, 'but, as we know, men outnumber women by two to one and this has not changed significantly over the last six years'.

Under the rules, multi-tenant chambers are required to produce an equality policy. Though respondents said the vast majority of chambers have such policies in place, just over half were aware that their organisation had a harassment policy.

'There are some encouraging findings in this report but some are very disappointing, and we intend to address these issues as a matter of urgency,' added Davies. 'I will be writing personally to every multi-tenant chambers in England and Wales to ensure that equality policies are being properly implemented and that everyone is aware of them.'

Last December, the Bar Council issued guidance to chambers on how to tackle sexual harassment, a response in part to its 2015 research Snapshot: The Experience of Self-Employed Women at the Bar, which flagged instances of unacceptable behaviour experienced by some barristers.

In addition, an equality and diversity helpline is available to offer advice and guidance, as well as a mediation and arbitration services to all barristers facing discrimination and harassment, and chambers struggling with equality and diversity policies.

The Bar has previously been criticised for failing to instigate change but Doerries said the success of the council's initiatives was being continuously monitored, and the professional body remained committed to further change.

'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 per cent of all QCs,' she said.

'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.'

Last year, the council found that while there is an approximate 50-50 balance of gender equality when barristers are first called to the Bar, an equal split among all barristers is unlikely to ever be achieved.