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 …?

26 thoughts on “Wombs and Weight: The female bar

  1. Exquistly penned my dear.
    I know very little about becoming a barrister or in fact anything about the justice system in general, but I do see a lot truth in your observations (albeit perhaps the situation is more magified in your line of work) in the attitudes that seem so ingrained towards female professionals, and most of all in the attitudes towards mothers that choose to go back to work. Its refreshing to hear a succinct and generally well balanced opinion, and no, I dont think you come across feminist and ranty … at all.

  2. I love this blog and I love your honesty.

    It’s little wonder that life is tricky as a barrister when you fall pregnant. You’re self employed working part of a group of people, sharing accommodation and services but competing for business. A working situation with not a single statutory protection for discriminatory and unfair treatment related to the fact of pregnancy, maternity leave etc.

    I know that there is no ‘legal’ requirement to make these provisions but it doesn’t stop forward (and right) thinking chambers from working out how to retain experienced counsel and making sure that they create the right environment for pregnant women.

    As for your ‘learned friend’ how rude and unprofessional. Bar Standards? Bastard.

  3. Congratulations on getting such a good result on what must have been an extremely tough case.
    That is the important part I’m reading here.

    Well done on remaining silent. I would imagine the audience in the room at the time, took whatever they felt was significant, away from that situation.

  4. Thank you @seeyouatthebar – A genuinely insightful post. As though it weren’t hard enough at the bar, there may well be dinosaurs around yet! Thankfully we have barristers like you though. (And sod the moron in the robing room!)

  5. Great post. You’re definitely not oversensitive. I agree that being female at the bar can have its perks, but the number of stories I can give of having been belittled or felt up make the cons outweigh the pros for me.

    I should add I find most guys at the bar to be gents. But there is a significant minority of exceptions.

  6. Great blog – and as someone who now teaches law at a university but hasn’t ever practiced, it’s really helpful to get some insight. I do wonder whether things will ever really change, not just at the Bar but in our society generally.

  7. Thank you for your article which echos my own experiences in general. A classic method of ‘put down’ is to ignore a good result in order to make a personal criticism! The fact that you were working on a rape case would have you fully broiled in gender/power/violence problems with implications for your own position. It takes a great deal of courage to be an advocate, and a whole lot more courage to be an advocate in a rape case as a woman. Go girl!!!

  8. Very well written and interesting piece. It’s such a shame that
    there still appears to be this male/female barrister ‘divide’ (dare
    I use that word!) going on some 90 years after the first female barrister.
    That pregnant barrister should hang her head in shame
    for doing that to you when you were being so thoughtful
    and probably treating her the way you would hope
    to have been treated in the same situation.As for the loser’s comment about your
    weight, well he can go……

  9. I’d have restrained myself from decking the robing room idiot but would prpbably have let rip verbally, and would no doubt have regretted it. Stupid *rse! We all deal with these challenges differently.

    I wonder if things are worse at the crim bar, I can’t imagine anyone I come across at court being so inappropriate. The sexism I’ve encountered is less direct and more difficult to put your finger on or to challenge, but many of the challenges we face are as you identify inherent in the combination of our self employed set up and the biological realities of pregnancy.

  10. The only reason he made that comment is that you had done a really great job on the case and he was pissed off so wanted to belittle you. Good on you for not replying as he didn’t get the reaction he was baiting you for.

  11. and to be quite frank, I dont pay any attention to outdated attitudes. I just get on with it and stuff those who are rude enough and ignorant enough to try

  12. I’ve spent 16 years at the Bar facing jokes about my weight, personality and the like, both from men and (slightly less so) women at the Bar and from the Bench. Most of those remarks, which on a bad day are plain hurtful, are for the most part intended in misguided jest. Just because a remark is made by a man, or about your looks, doesn’t make it sexist. Crass or unfunny maybe, sexist no.

    There is inevitably banter at the Bar – just ask my pupil, whose first exposure to me was her co-pupils on Circuit scaring her senseless by telling her what sort of taskmaster I was going to be – and there’s a fine (and subjective) line between funny and off. That banter is, of course, one of the greatest thing about our lifestyle, and the fact that we are adrenaline-laden raconteurs can lead to some pearls which we happily pass on to friends and the next generation. Sometimes the joke falls flat – and I’ve seen comedians have the same problem.

    I’m not sure from your timeline in the story whether it was actually a put-down as a reaction to the result of the case. I got the impression reading it that the jury were still out but if it was a deliberate put down, rather than a potentially ill-judged remark, he’d have said something to you whether you were male or female, young or old.

    I do think that when we’ve lost a case, particularly if we think we should have won, our judgment isn’t necessarily as good as it might be. I suspect The Burnley Girl had it right – a comeback against his hairline, waistline, eyesight (or all three) or a smug remark about how the jury like your curves, were equally valid responses and you’d not have regretted them.

    As for your opponent’s games(wo)manship, that’s naughty, and I don’t see that belittling your concern can reflect well on her. The best thing about the provincial Bar is that stories like that can come back to haunt their protagonists.

  13. I only know one other woman who has had a similar experience to this & she is a surgeon. Both law & medicine are ancient & noble professions, yet seem incapable of dragging themselves into modern times!
    Great article – good for thought & v well written.

  14. Miss Counsel

    I remember when you mentioned that you’d been ambushed in the robing room by the guy commenting on your appearance.

    After a few anger-laced misfires of possible future retorts, I came up with, “What is this, Life of Mars?”

    I honestly think that’s the only way to deal with some of these Neanderthals: flip it right back at them. and if you can get people to stop feeling embarassed for you – and a reason to laugh at him, so much the better ;-)

    It’s the same situation with women in the military and in the police – you’re treading into “men’s work” and some men’s view of masculinity – and some of the inadequates want *you* out.

    In the navy, we had a serious problem with sexual harassment in the aviation community. No woman is going to measure up to the “Maverick” image of a warrior. So, in some people’s world, women are less than – so get out of the way – or the robing room, in this instance. I think Lucy may be right about the Crim Bar thinking they have that same ethos – and maybe why many women go into Family work.

    When I was in the navy, I used to think that one day, women onboard ships wouldn’t be a novelty and all of this crap will be ancient history. It’s gotten better since my day, but it’s hardly a feminist utopia.

    I’m sure the Bar has progressed as well.

    Here’s hoping that Mr Cheap-shot’s kind are a dying breed – because it gets a bit tiring being the ground-breaker.

    PS thank you for sharing your experience. :-)

  15. So glad that somebody speak up and discuss these matters openly. Sometimes it feels like we are expected not to acknowledge this type of behaviour and to get on with it. Lets face it. SOME Men have difficulties accepting being surpassed by susscessful women; looking at us as the weaker gender. We women judge ourselves even harder to avoid situations where we can be judged harshly to avoid a pride hurting situation. Not quite sure that I would have kept quiet as you did however I do agree is more ladylike and you did not have to lower yourself to his poor standards of behaviour. Clearly an anger attack made with the intention to upset you.
    Does it really matter how much a person weight on regards of how good this person may be at her job? I am overweight does it make me a bad professional?

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

    No one should be judged on how they look. How ridiculous! Surely it would be in the clients’ best interest, to spend the time organizing their case and making it presentable, than to spend the time organizing ones’ looks and making oneself presentable?

    On the matter of genders and pregnancies, without the womb, they’d be no Bar. And a few other things…

    Pregnacy is a necessity.

  17. After nearly a century and several doses of equalities legislation It astounds me that these attitudes still exist in the bar. They of all people should know better!

    If those comments were made by the MD of a large multinational or the chief executive of a merchant bank, those very same dinosoric barristers would be falling over each other in the rush to pursue a lucrative sexual harassment claim!

  18. It’s probably not that helpful but I agree with Sonya, who said that it was just a way to take the gilt off your success. Professional jealousy at its worst unfortunately. Why do people who aren’t winning often resort to fat/ugly/thick jokes? It speaks to their own problems more than anyone else’s, but it’s still upsetting.
    I often find that a silent look up and down says more than any snarky comment, and since it’s silent, no one can accuse you of lowering yourself to their level or being rude.

  19. So women who leave at 5pm should take a back seat in promotion to men who work later? i.e people involved with their children should remain the same grade because only those who work until 8pm deserve to progress? That’s not going to result in equality at senior levels is it? If women are mostly the main carers their careers will then always stall. You thinks that’s fine, but cry about a comment re:your looks. I don’t think you should worry about appearing as a ‘ranty feminist’.

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