Female barristers have revealed being forced to specialise in practice areas because of their gender and said some male counterparts act as though they are in a ‘children’s playground’, in a Bar Council report highlighting what it says is the level of sexism still prevalent at the bar.

The report into the working lives of women barristers also shows the challenges females face balancing their career at the bar with childcare, and incidents of inappropriate behaviour.

Although sexism and harassment are less prevalent than in the past - one senior practitioner recounted an example as a pupil when her supervisor had said she looked ‘quite f*ckable’ after she had a new haircut - reports of discrimination still exists today.

One respondent in the report said that many men at the bar feel they are ‘existing in a children’s playground’ and said ‘grossly disrespectful things because nobody is going to stop them’. Others spoke about the bar as a ‘secret world’.

Some said that the older generation influenced the attitudes some male counsel hold towards women. ‘It carries through the generations, junior silk to judge,’ one person said.

Many women participating in the Bar Council’s Snapshot: the experience of self-employed women at the bar report described being forced into either family law or sexual crime cases because of their gender.

One practitioner said she had told a male sponsor as part of her Inn sponsor programme that she wanted to do criminal law, to which he responded ‘you’ve got no hope, all women have to do family law’. 

Another barrister who was ‘pigeon-holed’ into sexual offence cases talked about the impact this had on her wellbeing. ‘You combine [the] level of stress that you are dealing with every day, with a woman who is sobbing [and] she tells you she has been raped… .’

Some women said solicitors and clerks would push them into sex cases because of the perception that when the jury sees a woman, they presume the defendant cannot be guilty otherwise she would not defend him.

Women with children also complained of the difficulties combining care with their work at the bar. One woman said her income was halved when she had children, while another said that the cost of childcare can outweigh earnings at the criminal bar. 

While some chambers were supportive of women taking time off for maternity leave, others discouraged women working part time in case it hit their bottom line.

The report says that many women are still leaving the self-employed bar, particularly the criminal bar, when they start a family.

One criminal practitioner said: ‘The demands of work at a more senior level now are not compatible with what most women will want from their job and if present trends continue I think women will leave or be repelled from crime in their droves.’

Commenting on the report, Alistair MacDonald QC, chair of the Bar Council, said: ‘Whilst most of the examples of sexism, harassment and discrimination quoted in the report are historical, experiences of inappropriate behaviour within the profession continue to exist.’

He added: ‘While there is clearly no problem in attracting women to the bar, with women and men joining the bar in equal numbers, the report identifies a number of new and significant challenges experienced by women working within the profession.

‘These include being pushed into traditional “women’s practice areas” and balancing career and caring responsibilities.’