‘How to find a husband’ letter to barrister a reminder of ongoing issues

Recently, a UK-based junior barrister shared a “misogynistic” letter she received from another lawyer, which detailed how she should go about finding a husband. Here, award-winning women lawyers recount how gendered prejudice remains all too common in the legal profession, including in Australia, and how it can be eradicated.

Earlier this year, a US-based lawyer received a text message from a now-former colleague accusing her of “collecting salary while sitting on your ass”.

The message was posted on LinkedIn by a third lawyer, close to the recipient, which went viral. The incident underscored just how far the legal profession has to go in not just achieving gender equality but in stamping out sociocultural attitudes and norms that have prevailed in legal workplaces for years.

As reported by Lawyers Weekly late last week, the legal profession in Australia now boasts more than 90,000 practising solicitors, with women making up the majority not just across all jurisdictions but across the myriad demographics of practice, including in-house and government.

As Law Society of NSW chief executive Sonja Stewart put it, in conversation with Lawyers Weekly, Australian solicitors are now “younger, more female, and they’re more diverse”.

However, as numerous award-winning women lawyers tell Lawyers Weekly, such attitudes haven’t gone away just yet. In fact, there remains a commonality of experience that makes the latest viral incident wholly unsurprising.

The LinkedIn message and viral social media post

On Monday, 1 May, Alexandra Wilson, a junior barrister based in the United Kingdom, posted on Twitter a three-page personalised letter that she received on LinkedIn from another lawyer, which purported to offer advice on how to find a husband.

Ms Wilson is an Oxford graduate who was called to the bar in 2018 and has won multiple scholarships, along with being a vocal campaigner for ethnic minorities.

In a tweet that — as of the time of filing this story — has been viewed almost 90,000 times on Twitter, Ms Wilson shared a letter from another lawyer telling her “How to Find a Husband”.

She described the letter, in her Twitter post, as “misogynistic, homophobic and unsolicited”.

The 4PB family barrister also noted that it was “weird” and “slightly scary how much time appears to have gone into this”, with the letter going into lengthy detail on how she should go about finding a husband.

In the first paragraph, the unnamed lawyer refers to “the many challenges our young women encounter when coming up in the profession, while, at the same time trying to secure for themselves a loving family life through marriage”.

The lawyer continued: “Many of our brilliant young women … have an uphill struggle in this area, but with careful thought, planning, strategic movement, and the wise counsel of those who have successfully gone before on this path, the challenges can be surmounted.”

The lawyer then noted that a young woman in her mid- to late 20s “should be painfully careful to look out for a suitable person”, noting that there “is still hope for those who have passed these age brackets, although the pool of eligible single young men diminishes the older a woman becomes.”

“To get a good candidate, look out for someone … who would not be threatened by your professional accomplishments,” he advised Ms Wilson.

The unnamed lawyer also commented on how to go about intimacy: “If the relationship is to go anywhere good (and someone who loves you will not be in a hurry to get too intimate, they will be willing to wait for the right time) and no long courtship either, that leads to manipulation, relationship abuse and, in the end, heartbreak.”

He also added: “Develop some cooking skills too! … that skill will serve you well.”

“If you are intelligent enough to acquire your professional skills, you are good enough to become a little ‘master chef’, and a loving spouse will always appreciate this ‘hidden talent’,” the lawyer advised Ms Wilson.

“That would certainly earn you bragging rights.”

“I have seen a number of our girls who have put their career of marriage and family life as ‘career minded’ women. It does NOT end well,” the letter read.

“The feminist advocates campaigning against the traditional family life/marriage are nowhere to be found at this time of painful reflections and folks are left to bear the consequences of their ill-advised choices alone without any relief.

“A career pursuit should be in addition to the richness that a loving family brings, and not at its expense.”

Gender-based prejudice persists for professional women

Sapphire Parsons, a senior associate at Macpherson Kelley and winner of the 2022 Rising Star of the Year category at the Women in Law Awards, spoke to Lawyers Weekly about the letter.

It would be outrageous to send “Mr Wilson” a letter telling him to find a wife who is not threatened by his accomplishments, Ms Parsons highlighted.

“The lawyer’s letter is poisonously laced with dangerous societal assumptions such as ‘all women should get married’ and ‘women will be miserable if they do not get married and have children’,” commented Ms Parsons.

Ms Parsons, an African-Australian woman, discussed how such assertions in the legal profession are alive and well.

“As a young lawyer, I’ve been told that I would make a bad wife and mother because I would be too committed to my career and would be at risk of leaving home while children are asleep to attend work events,” she told Lawyers Weekly.

“In my mind, being a good lawyer and a good mother are not mutually exclusive.”

“Similarly, some of my earliest experiences of gendered violence occurred because I applied for jobs without permission from former partners, with elevated violence occurring shortly after professional success,” Ms Parsons explained.

“Indeed,” continued Ms Parsons, “gender norms perpetuate coercive control and increase the risk of gendered violence”.

Danielle Snell, managing director and co-founder of Elit Lawyers — which won Boutique Law Firm of the Year at the 2022 Australian Law Awards — spoke about the commonality of the issue.

“It is common for me to speak to lawyers who have personally experienced sexual harassment while working in the legal sector during the course of their career,” highlighted Ms Snell.

“Despite the incredible work done to advance women in the legal sector, sexual harassment does still happen in law firms, and it disproportionally affects women,” she explained.

“Given the hierarchical form of law firms, there is commonly a power imbalance between the harasser and the victim when it comes to sexual harassment in law firms, and this can then lead to barriers around the reporting of sexual harassment.”

How we can change the narrative

Ms Parsons noted that fostering a positive and respectful workplace culture, where appropriate standards of behaviour are set, modelled, and enforced, is essential to reducing the risks of harmful workplace behaviours that perpetuate gender inequality.

“Employees have a personal responsibility to reflect positive and inclusive behaviour in the workplace,” she highlighted.

Ms Parsons outlined several proactive steps employees can take:

  • Playing a part in modelling respectful behaviour;
  • Raising awareness of compliance obligations amongst senior leadership;
  • Participating in the implementation of workplace training, and updating policies to improve organisational awareness; and
  • Reporting, investigating, and responding to harmful workplace behaviour.

“Ultimately, we all hold a responsibility to change the public discourse and promote an environment where the intersections of race, gender, sexual and professional identity can exist without being plagued by bias,” said Ms Parsons.

“Legislation has changed to improve the environment in the workplace, and it’s up to us to ensure that respect for diverse experiences and backgrounds permeates into our day-to-day lives.”

Ms Snell commented on the work that needs to be done to eliminate bad conduct.

“With more and more women studying law and entering legal practice, we are now in an era where women of my generation are law firm leaders, founders and mentors to future female leaders and founders, and this should drive even more work to stamp this conduct out,” she stated.

“Retaining exceptional women and eliminating all forms of sexual harassment means actively listening to and engaging in conversations with leaders, employees, organisations, and bodies dedicated to advancing women in the legal profession.”

“Continuing to listen to the experiences and perspectives of individuals and groups will assist firms to better understand these barriers and what needs to be done,” she added.

Republished from Lawyers Weekly.


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