Wombs and Weight: The female bar

This is a guest post from @seeyouatthebar, a female barrister practicing in the North of England. I am dismayed, but not surprised by the sentiments she expresses below. Eleven years ago, in my first weeks of bar school, I discovered I was pregnant. I was urged by senior female barristers in my group of friends to keep that a secret, and certainly not tell the chambers who had offered me pupillage. I only told chambers once I had started and was told more than once by my female clerk that I ‘should be at home with my baby’. I had hoped we had moved on…

Now those that follow me on Twitter will know that I am not exactly a traditional feminist. Sometimes I just think women need to stop moaning. I get frustrated with women declaring all men are bastards whilst at the same time chanting for equality.

Let’s face it; I am one of those women who uses my femininity at work. If I need a favour from a court usher or a prosecutor I will not think twice about using girly charm. I also know that women are often chosen to prosecute or defend cases partly on the basis of their gender and I am happy to take advantage of that (every case and client needs a different ‘type’ of barrister). I still like my make up and high heels and I never have the same hair colour for longer than 3 months.

Dare I say it, but I am not sure a woman who leaves the office at 5pm each day to see her child should be complaining when her male colleague who works all hours gets that promotion first. Furthermore, I have no desire to start looking or behaving like a man or to be given a job where I will never see my daughter. However, a couple of recent events at work have led me to wonder whether the Bar is still completely stuck in the dark ages.

Late last year, I was defending a case involving serious sexual offences and the prosecutor was a very experienced lady barrister well over 10 years call. I have known her for some years and been in cases involving her previously. She is pleasant and good at her job but not particularly chatty so I actually did not know much about her personally. The case had not been straight forward to say the least and we were both having a stressful time. I walked in one day to find her looking pale and she told me that she had just listened to a voicemail to say a close member of her family had been rushed into hospital. She was the only relative in England and the next of kin. She was struggling to get through to the hospital and I asked her if she wanted me to delay the court but she declined. We continued with the case and on the next break she called the hospital. Without going into detail, it was clear that she was needed at the hospital but she refused to go and see the Judge despite my insistence. However, sat in court waiting, I could see she was welling up and I signalled to the Clerk that we needed to see the Judge. The Prosecutor looked relieved. As we walked up to the Judge’s Chambers she turned to me and said she was emotional due to the fact she was pregnant and burst into tears. My natural reaction was to immediately hug her and reassure her and we carried on up to see the Judge.

We walked into chambers and she sat down and immediately morphed into a completely different person! She explained the problem but made it clear that she had no intention of going to the hospital until tea time and effectively blamed me for the trip to see the Judge! Later that day, the Prosecutor said to me, “that was the first time in 14 years that I have let my personal life interfere with work and I am mortified”.  By the next day she was back to her professional, slightly stroppy self and it was as if we had never shared that hug on the stairs or the happy news of her pregnancy…

Now I have to admit that during that case I judged her. I commented to my boyfriend that she was hard faced and cruel leaving a relative alone in hospital. I doubt I would have said the same about a man. I also felt that she came across as ashamed of her pregnancy and I have since noticed that she is extremely reluctant to talk about it. Yet only the other day I heard a male member of the Bar talking very proudly (and loudly!) about the arrival of his baby boy.

However, after the case had concluded, I reflected on my own situation and professional life. I returned to work less than 3 weeks after my mum died and I felt that was leaving it too long. Perhaps I was judged at that time by my colleagues? I also worked up until the day before I gave birth to my daughter. I hid my bump for as long as I could and was reluctant to talk about the fact I was having a baby. Was I just being professional or was I a little bit worried about what people might think? It certainly didn’t help that one instructing solicitor remarked that my pregnancy could be the “end of my career”.

The first female barrister was called to the Bar in 1922 and in many ways it seems that there has been very little modernisation since then. For example, most Chambers have a wholly inadequate maternity policy. It took a great deal of work to get a decent policy in place in my Chambers. I would like to see all Chambers have a fair policy that is clearly set out on their websites, if only to ensure that women are not put off by joining (or remaining!) at the Bar.

The other matter which is really starting to frustrate me is how women at the Bar are still judged on their looks.

Recently, I was sat in a local robing room talking to a friend. An older male barrister was listening in to our discussion about exercise and declared loudly (so that the whole room heard), “You used to be so slim and gorgeous… you’re still lovely but not so slim now are you?”. Well…the Burnley girl in me wanted to tell him to bugger off but the professional side of me won and I stayed silent. I was embarrassed to say the least. It is not easy to admit this, but that night I cried as I was driving home (how girly of me?). Normally I am the first to be joking around in the robing room and batting off the teasing that goes on in there so why did I feel so differently this time?  Well, I was sat at court waiting on a verdict in a complicated rape trial when this comment was made. It had been the most difficult case of my career so far and I actually ended up getting an amazing result against all odds, yet that male barrister did not congratulate me on a strongly fought trial, instead he chose to comment on my looks and weight. I felt belittled in a room full of others and I felt sad that my hard work had gone unnoticed by my colleagues.

I desperately want to believe that women have reached equality at the Bar. Am I being sensitive or is there still some way to go …?