​Bar Council report reveals scope of sexism at the bar

A report by the Bar Council into the experience of female barristers has found that many feel pushed into traditional ‘women’s practice areas’ such as family and sex crime.

The report quizzed a total of 85 women through focus groups and completed questionnaires, with a “significant number”, though by no means all, feeling they were maneuvered into certain areas. One said: “I am aware of a number of female friends whose careers have definitely been pushed towards sex cases by their clerks.”

Another added: “It was my choice to specialise in crime… it was not my choice to specialise in sex cases and my gender is a significant factor in this type of work being sent to me early in my career. Thereafter the perception develops it is your area of expertise and that attracts more work and greater specialisation.”

The family bar is 61 per cent female, whereas all other areas of the bar are male-dominated.

Overall, however, the report found that most felt the bar had changed for the better. In particular, female barristers had generally positive experiences of the bar course and pupillage. Some did recount tales of outright sexism; however, these were typically historical examples from the 1980s and 90s. 

One source recalled: “When I attended court the solicitor told me my senior clerk had sold me to him on the basis that I had a great pair of legs” while another recounted her pupil supervisor telling her she looked “quite f*ckable with your hair like that.” 

Female barristers also felt that it had become harder to balance work and family, with one saying: “The job is simply not compatible with motherhood.”

Chairman of the Bar Council Alistair MacDonald QC said: “It is heartening to see that, as a profession, we have clearly moved on in the way women are treated… that said, there are clearly new challenges for women barristers. 

“The Legal Aid cuts are a threat to all members of our profession, but they perhaps have the most significant impact on those who are primary carers, of whom the majority are women. 

“Balancing work and family life is difficult in every profession. But when income cannot cover the costs of childcare we are potentially creating ‘no go’ areas of practice for women. That is bad for justice and for society as a whole.”

A separate report by the Bar Council, also released this month, found that ”there is no evidence that women are under-represented in the attainment of pupillage” but that ”current trends suggest that with the present model of practice at the Bar a 50:50 gender balance among all practising barristers is unlikely ever to be achieved.”

It gave two reasons for this: “women have a lower propensity to move from Call to practice and a higher attrition rate once in practice.”