‘Sexism is endemic’ in the legal profession; a criminal barrister shares her own experiences and reveals the inequalities that still plague the UK bar.

The writer of the recent Guardian article, Charlotte Proudman, is a human rights lawyer who specialises in violence against women and girls. She became a focus of media attention in 2015 after screenshotting and tweeting a LinkedIn message sent by a senior solicitor (who was twice her age) describing her profile picture as ‘stunning’ whilst ignoring her professional skills.

Charlotte has since continued to speak on the sexism she and others witness within the legal profession. With incidents such as a female barrister being asked to tie her hair back as it was a ‘distraction’ for the male judge, another being told to ‘spread your legs’ during a security check at Bromley Court and Charlotte herself being threatened with ‘no more briefs’ following her tweet, she certainly has a basis for her claim that the legal profession is ‘still rife with prejudice’.

Indeed, a 2017 survey by Legal Week showed that 64% of women in law firms had experienced sexual harassment at work. These professional environments remain heavily male-dominated; as of 2018 women accounted for only 29% of partners, 15% of silks and 24% of judges in the high court and above. This imbalance extends beyond gender; whilst 13% of the population is BAME, only 8% of judges are from minority ethnic groups. Dame Linda Dobbs, the first black female to be appointed High Court judge, has recently spoken of the two-fold nature of the discrimination she received as a BAME female during her time at the bar.

Efforts are being made to achieve gender, race and class parity within law. Collectively, Gray's Inn, Lincoln's Inn, Inner and Middle Temple provide about £4.5m in scholarship awards each year. Programs such as the Diversity Access Scheme and the Women in Law Summit are widening access to previously marginalized groups and creating forums of support and recognition. The Lord Chief Justice has recently urged members of his profession to ‘call out’ chauvinistic judges, warning that this behavior is dissuading capable women from seeking judicial appointment.

However, statements like this risk placing the onus on those who experience inappropriate behavior to report these incidents, without addressing the deterrents which prevent many from speaking out. Elizabeth Prochaska, who helped found the Behind the Gown movement, has said: “It is very difficult for individuals to raise their concerns at the bar due to a culture of patronage… it’s almost impossible to call out individuals who you rely on for work when they behave inappropriately or bully you”. Social media is enabling women like Charlotte and Joanna Hardy to speak out about their experiences but, with the Bar Standards Board only receiving two complaints of sexual harassment over the past five years, it seems that a culture of silence persists.
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