Did it need to be said? Ten tweet intervention tackling sexism at the bar.

Don’t act like you’re on a stag do and stop making jokes about breasts and skirts….

This was front page of the Evening Standard earlier this week. Not just the Standard. The story of sexism at the bar made headlines in the Daily Mail (in a good way!), the Times and a BBC Radio 4, Womans Hour discussion with Jenni Murray. It all happened thanks to barrister Joanna Hardy who spontaneously took to Twitter offering her remedy for poor treatment and attitudes towards women barristers in courts and chambers.

On the tube on a February Monday morning, the criminal lawyer told me she tapped out a list of practical solutions to improve the working lives of female colleagues (they seem so basic!): scrapping early court sittings so mothers and other primary caregivers can sort childcare before starting an often ‘chaotic job’. Spelling out what not behaving on a stag-do means, she advised male colleagues not to ask a woman barrister to fetch the coffee and vetoed ‘repetitive jokes’ about breasts or skirts and recommends avoiding communicating solely in innuendo.

Really? Really??? – did it need to be said? This year marks the 100 year anniversary of women being legally allowed to practise as a solicitor or barrister. It is gobsmacking (to borrow one female barrister tweep’s technical term). We have a woman prime minister, a female head of the Met police, a new woman head of the prisons and probation service. Indeed, the head of the UK’s highest Court, the Supreme Court is a woman. Yet and yet, these things still need saying!

Speaking to me at the end of her unexpected week in the media eye, Ms Hardy confessed she’d expected ‘three mates’ to see her tweets. Instead her smartphone ‘blew-up’ with responses. Journalists continue to pick over the serious issues at the heart of the impromptu Twitter intervention (not a hashtag in sight, social media gurus take note!).

And yes, there is an urgent and real point to calling out sexism at the bar. Women are chronically underrepresented as judges, especially senior judges. Many don’t make it beyond the junior ranks of ‘baby barrister.’ It’s not just an issue for the bar. Far fewer women are senior partners in law firms than the numbers coming into the profession lower down suggest there should be.

The recent media and social media interest in this story shows a nerve has been hit. The Criminal Bar Association’s Monday Message – usually confined to legal circles – tipped into the mainstream. (It was that week’s Monday Message which sparked the nine tweet call to action.) Joanna Hardy had read the chair’s blog which took issue with judges belittling junior female barristers. The bar leader highlighted the crisis of ‘talented women leaving criminal practice’.

Chris Henly quotes an anonymous woman barrister: “I don’t think I have ever been shouted at like I was by that judge . . . completely unacceptable. He acted like a toddler.” The chair said mothers of young children in particular were suffering stress at the hands of the judiciary, arguing that some male judges are unsympathetic to family pressures and insist on court timetables that clash with childcare responsibilities.

For as long as I remember bar leaders have been concerned about the attrition of women barristers, intensifying with the most recent Bar Council advice to women barristers to call out bullying when it happens. The drop-off of women from the bar starts early career and plummets if women have a baby. The thing to remember is that barristers are self-employed, freelancers. Their income and existence is already precarious. Unlike many professionals this means they are exposed without employee protection, meaning no maternity pay if/when they have a child. Factor in low pay, long hours which conflict with childcare and family life, however much they love the job, many new mum barristers decide it’s just not worth it. Who can blame them if to top it all, they battle ‘testosterone fuelled’ attitudes from the dark ages?

Meanwhile top judges offer diverging solutions. Lady Hale – she of the Supreme Court -favours ‘affirmative action – going out and trying to find the best of unrepresented groups’, not though positive discrimination itself. While her former Supreme Court colleague Jonathan Sumption has taken a different, well publicised view that there should be no rush in getting numbers up for women in senior judge roles. Rather it should be a more natural process. That’ll be agreeing to disagree then!

It seems remarkable that in 2019 – the centenary of women in law – ‘stag do’ behaviour at the bar needs calling out. What’s encouraging about this latest media storm is that individual chambers have been shown to lead the way in encouraging and maintaining women colleagues – mentoring schemes, formal and informal. Developing maternity policies and better supporting women returners after having a baby. The recently set-up group Women in Criminal Law (@Womenin CrimLaw) offers a mentor scheme for barristers and solicitors at all levels. One barrister told me things have improved in her 25 plus years at the bar:

There’s still room for improvement, though. My former HoC [Head of Chambers]commented on my breasts. That would simply not happen these days (certainly not my current HoC who is extremely pro-active)

Another woman – with recently formed campaign group Western Circuit Womens Forum (@WCWF) also presented welcome evidence of progression. Her baby less than three months old at the time, in case you’re wondering! (see right)

This month ten spontaneous tweets took the story of sexism well beyond chambers and the robing room. Speaking at the end of an unexpectedly high profile week, the criminal barrister told me she’s been overwhelmed by the positive response from senior and junior colleagues. She also wanted to set the record straight. When she took to Twitter to suggest solutions, she wasn’t talking about sexist comments happening every single day. Rather, she is calling out occasional, nonetheless harmful sexist comments. ‘They may just be once or twice. That can be enough to really affect that person. ‘ In her call to action Joanna Hardy urges senior women barristers and judges to ‘talk about managing families, stress, bravado at the bar. Lend a hand. ’

Sometimes Twitter hoovers up time and goes nowhere. Other times, it can unexpectedly spark change. Let’s hope in this case, it’s the latter.

Brenda Birungi