Supervisor tells pupil she looks ‘quite f*ckable’ — report highlights sexism at bar

Avatar photo

By Jonathan Ames on

Two surveys this week illustrate just how much work bar leaders have to do to drive out the Fred Flintstone attitudes


A second-six pupil has alleged that her supervisor told her she looked “quite fuckable” and that she ought to wear a jacket in chambers because he was “only human”.

The vivid anecdote was highlighted in a report released yesterday providing graphic illustration that sexism and harassment is alive and well at the bar.

According to the report from the Bar Council, young women pupils and barristers complained of a litany of behaviour that paints a picture of Carry On Chambers atmosphere. Reported one woman barrister:

…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.

Called “Snapshot: the experience of self-employed women at the bar”, the report came a day after bar leaders effectively admitted that women barristers are destined to be forever in a minority relative to their male counterparts. In a separate survey, council officials acknowledged that gender equality — in numbers, at least — will never be achieved across that branch of the legal profession.

But it is the detailed examples of sexism in the snapshot report that will shock the most. Commented one woman barrister:

There was a lot of sexism about when I was a pupil. I was told by my senior clerk that instead of wearing trouser suits I ought to wear shorter skirts and have lower neck lines because the criminals would talk to each other in prison and they might ask for me next time.

Related another:

[There was] lots of talking to the chest area. I remember that. Someone put their hand on my knee during dinner and just the shock of it. I didn’t say anything.

While another said bluntly:

I got a hand down the back of my trousers once

The report showed that sexist behaviour is not the sole preserve of senior male barristers — clerks also get in on the action. As one woman barrister told the Bar Council researchers:

My senior clerk used to put applications from female candidates for the clerking roles into the bin on the basis they would get women’s troubles.

As bad as it is, women might just have to accept that as long as men remain so dominant in the profession, sexism will be rife.

The council study on the gender composition of the bar published this week cited high post-call attrition rates among the ladies — and it reckons there is pretty much bugger-all that can be done about it.

There is no evidence that women are under-represented in the attainment of pupillage,” wrote the report’s authors, before continuing: “However, notwithstanding the increasing gender balance in called working age barristers, 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.

The report — “Momentum Measures: creating a diverse profession” — posits two reasons for the conclusion that men will always outnumber women at the bar, despite the pupillage numbers being effectively even. First, once called, women are more likely to decide that actual legal practice is not for them after all.

Second, even when they decide to jump into practice, women barristers have a far higher attrition rate down the road.

According to the report:

The attrition is such that it would require a very long period of substantial imbalance in favour of women at call to achieve a balance of women in practice. Modelling suggests that given current attrition rates approximately a 60:40 split in favour of women being called to the bar would be required to establish gender equality in practice.

The researchers went on to say:

The modelling shows that in respect of practising barristers of more than 15 years call, and of QCs, on current trends the practising bar will not achieve gender balance in the foreseeable future.

The report claims there have been more encouraging advances in relation to ethnic diversity at the bar.

The number of ethnic minority students called to the bar reached parity with the proportion of ethnic minorities in the wider UK population 25 years ago. And indeed, the researchers pointed out that the call figure now significantly exceeds the percentage in the general population.

However, many ethnic minority individuals that are called are from abroad, returning to their home countries to practise. Therefore, the number of ethnic minority lawyers practising at the bar in England and Wales is considerably smaller than the call figure.

Nonetheless, the report said:

Modelling suggests that the bar is on course to achieve the target 20:80 split between BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] and white British barristers in practise in the near future. The slightly greater attrition of BAME barristers is more than compensated for by their greater prevalence in pupillage.

Sam Mercer, head of the Bar Council’s diversity department, said the profession’s greatest equality challenge is the retention of women.

The self-employed nature of the profession,” he commented, “is a significant barrier to those who wish to have a family and stay in practice and legal aid cuts are making retention even more difficult as incomes fall and child care costs rise. This research confirms why we need to maintain our focus in this area.

Mercer went on to say:

Keeping women at the bar has been a challenge for some time and we have put in place a number of interventions to support the retention of female barristers. We are already working on several initiatives, which include expanding the bar nursery to the circuits, extending and developing mentoring programmes to help women build and sustain their practice, and offering support and advice in managing family career breaks.

The council also pointed out that the Bar Standards Board requires chambers to have parental leave and flexible working policies.