News & Insights

Break the Bias: A Pupil’s Perspective

08/03/2022

To mark International Women’s Day 2022 and this year’s theme ‘Break the Bias’, Christina Courquin, a pupil, reflects on initial expectations and experiences of being a woman in criminal law.

As a pupil, I am very new to the legal profession. Before I made the decision to practise at the criminal Bar, I was aware of the challenges that came alongside it: cuts to legal aid, arduous hours and a fiercely competitive market are a few examples. However, what took me by surprise (perhaps naively), was the ongoing challenges faced by female practitioners whilst carrying out their everyday roles.

Despite being only five months into my pupillage, I have become aware of the experiences of fellow junior women at the Bar which demonstrate that gender inequality still lingers within the legal profession. I personally have been fortunate; so far, I have only met men in the profession who promote inclusivity and equality and would never treat a woman as their inferior. However, as long as some bias still persists—whether deliberate or unconscious—it will remain difficult for women to progress.   

I am lucky to be entering the profession at a time when there is increased awareness, open dialogue and active intervention to address gender inequality. I am also fortunate to be undertaking my pupillage at a chambers which wholeheartedly supports and campaigns for equality in all senses. Nevertheless, it is important for the profession as a whole to be alive to the fact that gender stereotypes, discrimination and bias still exist.

The “Norms”

As I am still in my first six months of pupillage, and therefore not on my feet, I have yet to encounter certain issues within the profession which I am aware other women at the Bar have struggled with. I have not experienced the issue of a gender pay gap, or had to be concerned with receiving a fair distribution of work. Both are well-documented issues, not just within the criminal Bar but more widely and which the Bar Council is starting to take steps to address.  

However, like anyone at the start of a new career, I have been discovering various practical realities and norms of the profession which I was not aware of beforehand, some of which can cause issues with inclusivity.  

One example is separate robing rooms. In every Crown Court you will find a robing room where advocates can change into their court dress. Some Crown Courts provide a single room, others provide two separate rooms—one for men and one for women. In theory, there is nothing wrong with or biased about separate robing rooms. It is understandable why advocates might want changing rooms allocated for specific genders. However, depending on the set-up at different courts, the practical reality is that these rooms are used for more than just changing. It is not uncommon for conversations about a case or a trial to take place while advocates are in their separate rooms. Inevitably this can lead to some advocates being excluded from discussions due to their gender.

It is important for everyone in the profession to be alive to simple issues such as these, as they can be relatively easy to address. For example, my pupil supervisor (who is male) ensures that whenever we are in a court with separate robing rooms, all conversations relating to the case I am observing are conducted in a communal area. It is a small gesture, but one which shows me that chambers is determined not to let anyone be at a disadvantage because of their gender.

Awareness

I have spoken with a number of my fellow junior female practitioners, who have given me examples of some of discriminatory behaviour they have experienced in a courtroom setting in the past year. The examples include being referred to as ‘darling’, being told that they were ‘not too bad’ for a ‘young girl at the bar’ and—in the worst case—being told they were ‘too pretty to send people to prison’. I anticipate that the vast majority of practitioners, male or female, would be quick to intervene upon hearing such remarks.

It is not just the role of female practitioners to challenge those who hold and express such dismissive views. The vast majority of men I have encountered in the profession are advocates for equality. It is vital that everyone in the profession is united in tackling everyday instances of discriminatory attitudes, regardless of who demonstrates those attitudes.

Part of that awareness comes with not being afraid to challenge and call out the behaviour of others when it does occur. All women and men across the profession should feel able to speak out against inequality without risking a fear of prejudice to their practice. Members of Mountford Chambers have certainly demonstrated that they are willing to call out such behaviour. For example, fairly recently I was sat at the back of a courtroom observing a trial when I was told I would have to leave the room unless I tied my hair back (despite the fact I was not in court dress, nor was I a participant in the trial). The two male barristers in the room quickly intervened and highlighted that the remarks were inappropriate and unjustified.

One way of promoting awareness is for chambers to ensure they have a structure in place, so that if female practitioners do experience unfair and unequal treatment, it can be dealt with. Again, I am fortunate enough to be undertaking my pupillage at Mountford, where there is an incredibly strong support network designed to tackle inequality. Chambers has two designated welfare officers, who will listen to and discuss any issues or concerns. Chambers is also a sponsor of Women in Criminal Law (WICL), an excellent organisation which promotes and provides a voice for the thousands of women working in the criminal justice system. Becoming a member of WICL and participating in their events has introduced me to a wealth of extra support should the need ever arise. I would strongly recommend membership to any woman in the profession.

Traditions

There is no doubt that many traditions are firmly entrenched in our profession. After all, it is a long-standing profession with a wealth of history behind it. A number of these traditions can be incorporated into modern practice without any difficulty. For example, bowing to the Royal Coat of Arms when entering or exiting a courtroom or standing when addressing a judge.

However, others are slightly more problematic and help entrench the male-female divide. Some of these might seem pernickety. For example, every man who is called to the Bar and who purchases a wig tin from Ede & Ravenscroft will have the title “Esquire” painted onto it.  Women who are called to the Bar are not afforded such a title (or any title to that matter). It is an extremely small detail—one that may even seem vaguely humorous—yet it can’t help but serve as a reminder that some traditions still reflect the profession as fundamentally male-orientated.

The more challenging practices to tackle surround the social culture and after-court activities. It is well known that there is a time-honoured tradition of going for drinks after court with colleagues. This might seem a simple social activity, but it is one which is heavily designed for those who do not have caring responsibilities. I am aware that many fellow female practitioners (and plenty of male practitioners as well), are primary carers and as a result are unable to attend last-minute social events such as these.  

It is important that after-work social events do not create a networking disadvantage on those whose who have other commitments. In particular, events organised by chambers should be tailored to maximise inclusivity and to ensure no one is put at a disadvantage by missing social and networking opportunities. This is certainly an issue that Mountford Chambers is alive to and one of the reasons why advance notice is given to maximise attendance at social gatherings. Arranging social events which everyone enjoys, regardless of gender, is also an important gesture.

Break the Bias

The theme for International Women’s Day 2022 is “#breakthebias”. The campaign is for a world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. A world that is diverse, equitable and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated.

I am aware that the legal profession has come a long way since women first started practicing at the Bar. I will be eternally grateful to the strong, influential advocates who have paved the way for a better, more equal profession for women—such as myself—to enter now. But the story is not over yet. It is important that all practitioners, regardless of gender, continue to increase awareness and actively challenge gender inequality.

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