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OWLSS Events: Women at the Bar Panel

Updated: May 30, 2019

by Emilia Cieslak


The centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act should be a celebration, marking a century of meaningful contributions by women to the legal profession. Yet, this year, a disheartening survey commissioned by the International Bar Association found that bullying and sexual harassment was endemic in the legal barrister profession. 62% of respondents reported that they were bullied in connection with their employment, and more than a third that they had been sexually harassed. What are the lived experiences of these women? And what can we do to change this landscape?


Last Tuesday, OWLSS was proud to welcome four leading female QCs to speak about their experiences, as well as the obstacles and opportunities awaiting women at the Bar.

Our panelists were:

  • Kirsty Brimelow QC, Head of Doughty Street Chamber’s International Human Rights Team

  • Gillian Jones QC, Head of Red Lion Chambers

  • Helen Mountfield QC, founder of Matrix Chambers and Principal of Mansfield College

  • Susan Grocott QC, Head of Deans Court Chambers’ Family Team

The aforementioned statistics were discussed by our panelists. Grocott QC suggested that the competitive atmosphere within chambers may have discouraged people from making complaints about bullying and harassment in the past; there was a “whistle-blower fear” that if you were seen to complain this could be used against you. Other panelists, including Brimelow QC and Mountfield QC, drew attention to the issue of judicial bullying of female barristers by male judges. This phenomenon becomes all the more problematic, when barristers are unable to argue back while standing in court. Mountfield QC recounted an anecdote where an irascible judge acted harshly towards a male colleague. This prompted another colleague to exclaim: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a judge be as mean to a male barrister!”


However, the panelists were optimistic about the future of the profession for women. Jones QC said that the culture at the Bar has “transformed” in recent years, with women feeling more empowered to report any complaints. She shared that her set, Red Lion Chambers, has a policy of encouraging women to speak out, and ensures that formal complaints can be issued. Brimelow QC echoed this point, saying that she felt that able to speak to senior people to resolve any problems at her set. The bar council has already introduced new policies to deal with bullying; now, the challenge is to make these policies function as “a living thing” through reimagining ourwork culture. This process seems to be underway: many of the panelists commented on the sense of camaraderie at their sets, with Jones QC claiming that the collegiate atmosphere felt “pretty unique” to this profession. Grocott QC emphasised the importance of finding a chamber whose ethos matches your own, and moving if necessary. After negative experiences with a sexist clerk she left a set, which was a difficult decision she likened to “a divorce”, but it was ultimately for the better as it allowed her to develop her career.


Challenges facing women at the bar


Our panelists agreed that a key challenge is retention; they spoke about the policies their sets have in place to allow women to return to the bar after maternity leave. Mountfield QC observed that women returning from maternity leave may have a period of financial difficulty after a period out of work, especially if they have more than one child in a short period. Matrix Chambers, which Mountfield QC founded to offer an alternative to traditional English sets, offers loans for women coming back after having children. Jones QC’s set has a similar loans policy and a mentoring back-to-work program to help people transition smoothly back to work.


Why do they stay on?


The panelists all spoke about the rewarding nature of working at the Bar. Brimelow first became interested in becoming a barrister due to the element of oral advocacy. She recalls the “adrenaline rush” and “rollercoaster” of emotions felt when working on a case; moreover,the ultimate satisfaction was knowing that her work in international human rights has a positive effect on other people’s lives. Several panellists spoke of a great sense of achievement when becoming a QC: for Grocott QC it represented a recognition of her hard work and resolution, while Jones said that being sworn in in front of her 90-year-old uncle was one of the highlights of her career. Mountfield QC felt great pride at having the opportunity to represent women at the bar as she was one of only three female barristers in the constitutionally important case of R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Leaving the European Union. And being the only female barrister who spoke!


When it came to offering advice to women* hoping to pursue a career as barristers, the panelists’ advice boiled down to: be resolute and be visible! Grocott QC talked of maintaining a notion of self-determination, and Jones stated that you should never give up if you want to ride out the inevitable highs and lows of a career at the Bar. Brimelow and Mountifeld both agreed on the need to put yourself out there through networking, writing, and doing pro bono work. Mountfield left us with some great advice for when you are about to address the court: “Say to yourself: this is my space, and I am entitled to be here”.


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Emilia Cieslak is a staff writer for OWLSS. She is interested in human rights and corporate law, especially in the ways that they interact. She is also a college rep for the Oxford University Law Society and the Oxford University Media Society. You can reach her at emilia.cieslak@keble.ox.ac.uk