Through the recent series of articles in these pages we and others have been raising the profile of the ongoing problem of harassment in our profession and what action is being taken to address it, including the new Bar Council guidance, training and model policy which were recently launched.

There are a host of new initiatives whose aims include tackling the problem, such as Behind the Gown and women’s forums on a number of Circuits – led by women. But the involvement of men is essential. A problem like this isn’t going to be solved without the support and contribution of half the human race, 66% of the Bar and 85% of heads of chambers. Institutional change will not come without involvement of those who hold the power in our profession – overwhelmingly men.

"If barristers are trained or given the right access to information, and the right push, fully to understand what the problem is and how we are seeking to tackle it, then they are the ideal cohort of characters to tackle such behaviour both at work and in the wider world."

The main dividing line on this issue is not gender. The vast majority of the Bar, regardless of gender, are dismayed by harassment inflicted by a small minority. Men as well as women are victims. Women as well as men are perpetrators. The case name would not be ‘men v women’ but ‘harassers v appalled’. So we asked a selection of men who have recently become involved in tackling harassment for their thoughts…

What did YOU first think when people started raising the profile of sexual harassment at the Bar?

‘My initial reaction was surprise. During my time at the Bar I had seen a number of exchanges as between barristers, clerks and barrister, judges and barristers, that were somewhat close to the knuckle… I had always viewed this as part of the rough and tumble of being at the Bar.’

‘I was alive to gender discrimination issues and the gradual rebalancing of the Bar much more than I was to an existing problem of sexual harassment.’

‘I was generally aware from comments from women at the Bar that this was still a problem, but was probably not aware of the full extent at that point.’

They were far from alone. In an Ipsos MORI Perils of Perception poll (2018), when asked what proportion of women experienced any form of sexual harassment, both male and female respondents across the US and 12 European countries, including Great Britain, underestimated the levels of harassment experienced by women.

What changed for you?

For many, realising that the problem was far more widespread than they had realised prompted them to start thinking that things had to change.

‘I recognise that the problem is more insidious and more entrenched than I had previously thought… The more I reflect on the different ways in which clients, members of chambers and even the judiciary address some women compared to how men are addressed, the wider I see the problem being.’

For others, it was hearing first-hand accounts:

‘One specific experience has really pushed my views along, having intervened on two occasions with a senior member of chambers who was behaving inappropriately with younger colleagues at social functions. I suppose this made me realise that not everyone thinks along the same lines.’

‘It was something of an eye-opener to hear from pupils about their experiences and perception of the problem.’

‘I had an enlightening and productive meeting with another member of chambers whose insight into these problems educated me.’

"After reading more about incidental or casual sexism in particular, my views have changed significantly, both in relation to my sensitivity to others’ actions and comments and also my own actions and comments."

Others had experiences which changed their perception of what was acceptable. The recent profile given to the concepts of ‘benevolent sexism’ and ‘everyday sexism’ shone a light on the impact of comments which would barely have registered with many a few years ago.

‘I recall one incident in a provincial robing room where a middle/junior level male barrister, who was not friends with, or known to a relatively junior female barrister whom he was against, complimented her on her choice of tights. Prior to the #MeToo awareness and the subsequent discussions and Bar training about it, I would never have picked up on that as a potentially harassing or intimidating comment… I now understand that such behaviour can be used (intentionally) to undermine, but also the effect of such language can be to embarrass and to cause somebody to feel uncomfortable.’

Learning that perpetrators are not confined to the older generation has also led some who might otherwise have thought the problem would die out with ‘the dinosaurs’ to reassess the need for action.

Does this new wave of action concern them at all?

Whilst it is right that the focus of the #MeToo movement has been on women’s experiences rather than men’s reactions, it would be foolish to pretend that there has been no backlash. The main area of concern to our respondents was around ‘where the line is drawn’.

‘The concerns I have surround the difficult zone between friends and work colleagues. The Bar is and should be a friendly place. What struck me is the fine line between something being friendly and good-natured teasing, and something more corrosive, even if the speaker/actor of the comment or behaviour had no malign intent.’

‘I think the raised profile has alarmed some men, who feel worried about where the line should be drawn.’

‘I still think it possible that there will sometimes be occasions when barristers will disagree as to when a line has been crossed.’

Concerns were also raised about what could happen if complaints aren’t dealt with in a measured and appropriate way:

‘I am worried that if a complaint is handled badly, this might lead to a severe loss of reputation or even worse.’

‘We need to make sure that matters can be dealt with informally, if the gravity of the action allows.’

Others expressed concern about whether the current efforts will in fact succeed.

‘I fear that any efforts to change attitudes and behaviour will be characterised and assassinated by the naysayers as extremist.’

‘There are substantial risks that deeply entrenched views will not be altered… I have witnessed and debated women members of chambers who regard [harassment] as a non-issue. Equally there is a risk of mouthing the right words but continuing behaviour as before…’

‘I still have some concerns that junior members of the profession will continue to be reluctant to come forward since they will be concerned their careers will suffer.’

‘What we don’t want to do is create an environment where walls are created between practitioners and the valuable facets of the Bar of camaraderie and good humour (including humour that could be described as edgy) are lost.’

It would be a terrible blow to our profession if efforts to address the problem of harassment resulted in more gender division – another reason why it is so important for men to be involved in formulating solutions to the problem.

"I realised my concerns were misplaced. There was a problem with sexual harassment in the workplace, and it was naïve to assume that this was not the case with the Bar."

What can men do about the problem?

We’re not talking about the small minority of men who are doing most of the harassing – their job is clear: just stop! We’re talking about what the overwhelming majority can do to help bring about the change needed.

  • Simply talking about it is a great start: ‘The more that the subject can be spoken of, the easier people will find it to condemn old attitudes and challenge unwanted behaviour.’
  • Looking out for the most vulnerable amongst us is something everyone should feel able to do: ‘I think it is important that each pupil supervisor, at the start of their time with a pupil, should explain to the pupil that they should have the confidence to speak up if they in any way feel uncomfortable.’
  • Calling out inappropriate behaviour rather than turning a blind eye is a job for everyone: ‘Being able to identify the offending behaviour, and having the tools and the confidence to speak out about it, whether on one’s own behalf or on behalf of another. No matter who the perpetrator.’ ‘It is desperately difficult for females who are on the receiving end of [benevolent sexism] to object to it for fear of how “difficult” it will make them look. Other members of the Bar can and should step in.’

Richard Atkins QC, Chair of the Bar says: ‘The Bar has come a long way in tackling issues of harassment and discrimination, but it is clear that there is more work that needs to be done. It is heartening to see women and men working together to tackle this difficult problem and I am grateful for all the hard work being done. I would encourage everyone at the Bar to do what they can to make the Bar a profession that treats all as equal.’

"I think there has been an improvement... misogynistic terms used to often be heard in the robing room – but on the rare occasions when they are heard now, it is genuinely shocking and we need to challenge it."

Women may have been a step or two ahead of men in knowing the extent of the problem, and initially more fired up than men about tackling it. But in our experience every man, without exception, who has had the chance to learn about the extent of the problem, hear about some first-hand experiences from their colleagues and have an open discussion about harassment has put their weight firmly behind initiatives to address it. Further, they have contributed incredibly useful alternative perspectives and ideas, helping to make those initiatives as successful as they can possibly be.

The time has therefore come to open up the difficult conversations and get barristers of all gender identities, from across every practice area and every level of seniority, engaged in honest and open discussions about what they personally can do to help make our workplaces safer, more respectful and more supportive. 

Harassment training

New training has been developed by the Bar Council’s EDSM Committee and Retention Panel to ensure appropriate management of incidents of harassment. It includes active listening skills and complies with the requirements of the BSB Waiver Scheme (reporting exemptions for harassment advisers). See:

Kate Brunner QC set up the Western Circuit Women’s Forum with other Circuiteers in 2015, to improve the retention and advancement of women on Circuit. She is a barrister at Albion Chambers in Bristol, and the 36 Group in London, practising in crime, fraud and regulatory law.

Esther Gamble is Chair of the Midland Circuit Women’s Forum and a member of the Bar Council’s Equality and Diversity Retention Panel. She is a member of No5 Chambers in Birmingham, specialising in clinical negligence litigation.

Jason Beal is Head of Chambers at Devon Chambers, Plymouth. He practises in criminal law.


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