The Bar Standards Board (BSB) has long recognised the issue of bullying and harassment at the Bar. In July 2019, it launched the Addressing Bullying and Harassment at the Bar project – commissioning YouGov research to explore the drivers of workplace bullying, its impacts, and barriers to reporting (Bullying, Discrimination and Harassment at the Bar, You Gov for the BSB, October 2020). Its findings? That ‘there may be much to be done to combat the harassment, bullying, and discrimination that appears widespread... both overt and implicit… as “one-off” incidents and as sustained campaigns of abuse (p 50). In response, the BSB committed to increasing reports of bullying and harassment by amending the Handbook to include ‘bullying’ as potentially serious misconduct (Addressing Bullying and Harassment at the Bar, BSB, October 2022, p 5). To date, the Handbook remains unchanged. Increasing reports about a problem means having systems in place that acknowledge the problem exists. To this end, the lack of explicit reference to online misogyny in the BSB’s revised Social Media Guidance is a missed opportunity, which does little to tackle this pervasive issue.

Evidence of the gendered nature of bullying and harassment dates back to the BSB’s own Women at the Bar report, one objective of which, was to better understand the high attrition rate for women at the Bar (Women at the Bar, BSB, July 2016). Of 1,333 women barristers surveyed, 40.2% said they had experienced harassment and 45% experienced discrimination. The rate is likely to be even higher for women of colour who will experience intersecting gender and race discrimination (misogynoir), as well as women facing other intersectional inequalities. In 2019, the International Bar Association global survey on bullying and harassment in the legal profession found that 62% of UK female respondents, compared with 41% of UK male respondents, were bullied in connection with their employment. Globally, 1/3 female respondents were sexually harassed in the workplace, compared with 1/14 male respondents (Us Too? Bullying and Harassment in the Legal Profession, Pender, K., International Bar Association, 2019). The 2021 Barristers’ Working Lives Report showed that the most common link with experiences of bullying, harassment, and discrimination, in person – or online, was gender (Barristers’ Working Lives 2021, A Report for the Bar Council, Williams, M. & Pike, G., IES, September 2021). This strongly correlated with lower wellbeing, increased perfectionism and, notably, feeling less comfortable expressing opinions, thoughts, and ideas.

No surprise, then, that in the online world, it is women who ‘fear speaking out’ and ‘commonly self-censor’ (Written evidence submitted by Professor Clare McGlynn, Durham Law School, Durham University, (Online Safety Bill), September 2021, p 3). Recognising this, the government amended the Online Safety Bill to better protect women and girls from online abuse. Ofcom will publish guidance in consultation with the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and Victims’ Commissioners, on measures that tech companies can take to reduce the risk of harm to women and girls. In September, political journalist, Ava Evans was subjected to sexually harmful comments following a debate on men’s mental health. Subsequently, she revealed her direct messages were full of people ‘threatening me’. In July, this magazine highlighted the misogynistic, online trolling that speaking out on male violence and advancement of women’s rights under the law, can spark including by barristers, solicitors and lay people (‘Speaking Up’, Charlotte Proudman, Counsel, July 2023). Since that article – in response to separate posts on X/Twitter – one of the authors of this article has been called a ‘w****r’ and ‘vile’ by members of our profession. The ease with which such comments are fired off exposes the lack of – and urgent need for – BSB regulation. On social media, we often see female barristers held to a higher standard than their male counterparts. The herd mentality appears to suggest that men can opine on a wide range of issues whereas women’s views are narrowly constructed and policed. Sadly, this descends into personal attacks where sexist and misogynistic attitudes come to the fore.

So why has the regulator not reflected this in its Social Media Guidance? While the Guidance warns against offensive, harassing, bullying comments, and discriminatory conduct which could alienate vulnerable groups – women are not referred to, and misogyny is not given the prominence we requested.

Instead, greater prominence is attached to Article 10 ECHR (it is mentioned 10 times). During the consultation, the most common concern raised about the Guidance was its impact on freedom of expression (The Regulation of Non-Professional Conduct – BSB Response, BSB, para 68). One response feared its potentially ‘chilling effect’ (para 68). Another said certain sections were ‘deeply disturbing’ (para 70). But, as McGlynn argues, the assumption that regulation inhibits free speech fails to understand that the current position already limits the speech of women and marginalised groups’ (op cit). In an essay on feminism and free speech, Mary Anne Franks writes: ‘[T]he theory and practice of free speech is suffused with pretensions to universality that obscure the gendered nature of power and particularities of women’s lived experience’ (Speaking of Women: Feminism and Free Speech, Franks, M., Feminist Public Intellectuals Project, The University of Chicago, 2022). The point is that free speech is experienced differently for men and women. The risks attached to what men and women say are not equal. To this end, better regulation helps ensure freedom of speech applies to all. Far from encroaching on human rights, regulation enhances human rights (McGlynn, op cit). Without expressly acknowledging the risk of misogynistic abuse that may flow from what women say, online, we fear the Social Media Guidance will do little to protect women’s voices in an increasingly digitised world.

The Social Media Guidance is not as impactful as we had hoped. The interspersal of case studies adds to, rather than reduces, its opacity. Regrettably, the Guidance does not reflect the unequivocal evidence much of which the regulator has been instrumental in obtaining that bullying and harassment on and offline remains an issue for women at the Bar. If the BSB fails to take online sexist and misogynistic conduct seriously enough to acknowledge its existence in the Handbook or Guidance this signals a culture of impunity to our male peers who behave in such ways and to women who have nowhere to turn to. Without this public acknowledgement, how can the Bar tackle the root cause of this cultural problem? Where are the mechanisms for change?

In fact, the regulator has decided to take no action on Dr Proudman’s complaint about the tweets from over 50 barristers, who are predominantly male. Despite acknowledging their posts as ‘unpleasant and inflammatory’, the BSB said they did not meet the threshold for regulatory action (see ‘Barrister’s fury after legal regulator takes no action over colleagues’ foul-mouthed tweets’, Maya Oppenheim, Independent, 26 October 2023).

What can be done? Firstly, for the workplace to be safe, secure, inclusive, and diverse, there must be clear expectations of behaviours and conduct for barristers on social media. We note there is a ‘Statement of Expected Behaviour’ published for and by the Judiciary making it clear that people will be treated fairly with courtesy and respect and where diversity is recognised and valued (Statement of Expected Behaviour, Courts and Tribunals Judiciary, 19 January 2023). A similar document with appropriate recognition of specific inequalities, would benefit the Bar.

Secondly, this issue requires ‘joined up thinking’ with stakeholders across the profession. In July, the Chair of the Bar, Nick Vineall KC, published a welcomed statement (‘There is no place at the Bar for misogynist and bullying behaviour’) adding that personalised attacks and sexist or bullying behaviour must be stamped out. In 2022, in a report on bullying and harassment, the BSB said that a ‘collaborative and coordinated approach’ with the Bar Council and other stakeholders would be helpful in effecting ‘lasting, meaningful change’ (Addressing Bullying and Harassment at the Bar, op cit, p 9). It is therefore disappointing that the sentiments shared by the Bar Chair were missing from the BSB’s Social Media Guidance – on an issue where change is much needed. 


Bullying, Discrimination and Harassment at the Bar, You Gov/BSB, 2020; Addressing Bullying and Harassment at the Bar, BSB, 2022; Social Media Guidance, BSB, 2023; Women at the Bar, BSB, 2016; Us Too? Bullying and Harassment in the Legal Profession, IBA, 2019; Barristers’ Working Lives 2021, IES: A Report for the Bar Council, 2021; Written evidence submitted by Professor Clare McGlynn, Durham Law School, Durham University, (Online Safety Bill), 2021; The Regulation of Non-Professional Conduct – BSB Response, 2023; ‘Speaking Up’, Charlotte Proudman, Counsel, July 2023; Speaking of Women: Feminism and Free Speech, Franks, M., Feminist Public Intellectuals Project, The University of Chicago, 2022; ‘Barrister’s fury...’, Maya Oppenheim, Independent, 26 October 2023; Statement of Expected Behaviour, Courts & Tribunals Judiciary, January 2023; Nick Vineall KC, Chair of the Bar’s statement: ‘No place at the Bar for misogynist and bullying behaviour’, 3 July 2023.