“Fighting for justice is hard enough when you experience sexism on the job”

Written by Alexandra Wilson

In an extract from her new book, In Black & White, junior barrister Alexandra Wilson writes about her experience of facing sexual harassment at work, while also exploring the ways in which her voice was silenced because of the lack of representation of women in the justice system. 

People often imagine that courtrooms are held in the grip of tense silence, the judge’s careful pauses making room for the echo of his or her last words. In reality, there is often quite a bit of hustle and bustle in the courtroom. Trainee barristers are encouraged to take a note of everything that is happening in the courtroom. You notice all of the sounds in the room, from the low conversations to the witness’s nervous taps on the witness box.

One afternoon I found myself assisting a senior prosecution barrister in a multi-handed (i.e. more than one defendant) fraud trial. The defendants were builders and were accused of fraudulently overbilling clients for work done by altering invoices from the contractors that worked for them. We were in a small courtroom and not all the barristers could fit in the front row, especially given all of the paperwork, so the co-defendant’s barrister joined me in the row behind. The barrister I was shadowing was impressive. He was eloquent and persuasive and commanded the jury’s attention in a way that I had never seen before.

They lapped up his every word and I could see the jury members nodding along as he spoke. Tapping away, I entered the prosecutor’s words: ‘The defendant’s evidence is circumscribed…’ The senior defence barrister next to me chuckled and leant closer than was necessary. His greasy forehead shone even under the dim light of the courtroom. He was close enough that I could see the faint wrinkles under his eyes and I could smell the musty fragrance of his morning coffee on his breath. 

His voice lowered and he whispered: ‘I’m not circumcised.’ The wordplay sat uncomfortably in the small space of air between us. ‘I’m not circumcised, because I’m Catholic.’ He chuckled again at his own joke and sat upright and continued to write in his blue-lined notebook. 

I shuffled along the wooden bench to distance myself from him. I looked up and around to see if any of the other barristers had heard but they were fixated on their laptop screens. The comment had disturbed me; I felt very uncomfortable. I’d heard the horror stories of sexual harassment at the Bar and, naively, I thought that it wouldn’t happen to me.

This emphasised to me the practical importance of having better representation of women at the Bar, particularly at the senior end. Women often feel more comfortable talking to other women about sexual harassment or sexism at work.

Even if women are not willing to report sexual harassment to senior women, the mere presence of more senior women may reduce the prevalence of sexual harassment. Had there been more women in the courtroom that day, this barrister might have thought twice about making his ‘joke’. I wondered whether he would be as comfortable saying something like this in the presence of a number of equally senior or more senior women. I highly doubted it.

There was a huge imbalance in the power dynamic that morning: I was a pupil barrister and he was a senior barrister. I knew that he had intended the comment as a joke but, frankly, I had no interest in whether or not his penis was circumcised and talking about that with a woman at least 20 years younger, in a courtroom, felt entirely inappropriate. I was in the training year to qualify in the job he was already senior in and he knew this. 

I didn’t know who to report the incident to or whether I even should. The other barristers in the case were male. The judge was male. My supervisor was male. I worried that I might be seen as an overly sensitive female who couldn’t take a joke.

In reality, pupils are unlikely to approach the Bar Standards Board, either. Pupillage is a year-long interview, in the course of which your peers decide whether you should be kept on at the end of the year. The Bar is a ‘small’ profession, in the sense that people tend to know a large number of the people in their practice area. I felt that I couldn’t report this incident to the barrister’s chambers because there was a good chance one of his colleagues would know someone in my chambers. 

All it would take was for one person to deem me to be a troublemaker. In this job, reputation is everything and as a pupil, the ‘pupillage paranoia’ tells you that reporting inappropriate behaviour might result in that reputation being damaged.

As a woman, I have at times felt uncomfortable, particularly when people have made inappropriate jokes or comments whilst I am at work. It worries me that this behaviour continues and I think a large part of it is because of the macho culture in the courtroom. The legal world has been male-dominated for a long time. It was only recently that we celebrated 100 years since women first entered the profession. For things to change, women need to remain in the profession and reach the top ranks. 

Images: Laurie Lewis

In Black & White: A Young Barrister’s Story Of Race And Class In A Broken Justice System by Alexandra Wilson, published by Endeavour, £16.99 www.octopusbooks.co.uk 

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