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When Will it Change?

February 15, 2018

Listening today to reports of allegations that five female university students were sexually harassed while  completing a summer internship at one of the country’s largest law firms, I am left with an unrelenting pit of despair in my stomach. When will things change in my profession?

Over 20 years ago I was a summer intern at a “Big 6” firm. Fortunately, I didn’t encounter sexual harassment in my time there. This is not a “Me Too” moment. However, I could well see the potential for it. What I most remember of this time in my career is the terrifying cocktail of the exhilaration of embarking on my career mixed with the daily apprehension and lack of confidence I felt as I moved within that world. Even with years of experience under our belts, many of my female contemporaries continue to carry “imposter” feelings, crises of confidence or shy from challenges they are more than capable of meeting for fear of not “being up to the task”.  This is nothing new or earth shattering. Women have known, and quietly whispered, of this affliction within our tribe forever. Sheryl Sandberg got a bestseller out of it in her book, “Lean In”, helping to amplify the conversation. To think that twenty plus years later young women, likely carrying with them those same feelings I had, have been welcomed to our profession with sexual harassment is shameful.

I well remember the emotion of a fellow junior colleague confiding in me about the sexual harassment she received from her boss before she’d even got through lunch on her first day in the job.  Over the years other stories emerged – the secretary who felt she had no choice but to leave her job because of the overt sexual harassment by the owner of the practice; the colleague who felt uncomfortable because of the calls and invitations she received from a senior male colleague; the colleague who was left confused and grieving after being propositioned by a married male partner who she previously considered a professional mentor; the two female junior lawyers who came into the interview room I was in at Court to quietly discuss the inappropriate comments made to them outside by a senior male colleague.

In other ways, my female peers are made to feel “less than” and undervalued while trying to simply go about their daily work:  the male partner who jokes the firms’ maternity leave policy is “you get pregnant, you leave”; the client who, in explicit terms, talks to his junior female lawyer about aspects of his sex life and his anatomy (completely irrelevant to his case) yet doesn’t do the same when he is moved to a male lawyer; the junior lawyer who has a more senior male colleague make derogatory remarks about an aspect of her physical appearance during a settlement meeting. The list goes on. I well remember the male respondent who, in one of my first, nerve wracking hearings, insisted on answering my cross examination in a condescending, patronising tone while calling me “girly” and “sweetheart”. This occurred in front of a senior male lawyer and a male Judge who didn’t bat an eyelid. I have no doubt that had he made a racist comment in that Courtroom, he would have been reprimanded swiftly but his sexism went uncommented on. I was left feeling belittled and to assume it simply either wasn’t seen by these two men in power or was just viewed as the rigours of litigation. Harden up sweetie.shutterstock_738589228

I am writing of only a small few of our male colleagues, not all of them. Most of my male employers and colleagues have been wonderful. I am particularly fortunate to enjoy collegial relationships with male colleagues who will be equally as appalled as I am at these stories. Most of the men in my profession conduct themselves around all their colleagues, male and female, in an entirely respectful, professional manner. Sadly, anecdotal evidence suggests the perpetrators of what can be described as (at best) clumsy and inappropriate and (at its worst) predatory or harassing behaviour towards their female colleagues are older, senior members of our profession.

Do the women of my anecdotes, all of whom are educated, strong and independent, formally complain? No. And so it goes on. A myriad of reasons stops us from complaining. The hierarchical nature of the profession and a sense of “knowing our place” against more senior colleagues. The lack of confidence we have as juniors, particularly when jobs are so rare and sought after. Not wanting to be seen as “a problem” or “a prude” or “unable to take a joke”.  Sometimes, just wanting to have it be over with. Then there is the small firm isolation experienced when one is left feeling powerless as the “HR department” or manager to go to is also the owner of the firm and the perpetrator of the behaviour.

Good on these five young women for standing strong on this and complaining. Good on the Vice Chancellor of Victoria University, Grant Guilford, who on National Radio today labelled perpetrators of sexual harassment as “arseholes” and called for greater understanding within workplaces and our society of the long term harm caused by sexual harassment. Kudos to his interviewer, Kathryn Ryan, who upon hearing about initiatives being taken to “prepare” young women for entering the workplace and dealing with such situations, stated the obvious– shouldn’t young women be able to go into the workforce and simply not have to encounter such behaviour?

To my profession – as lawyers, most of us have very keen social justice radars. We are quick to jump on causes. But our own house must be tidy. We must be alert to those who subvert the respect and honour of our roles. The men in our profession need to all be the biggest advocates for their female colleagues. The women in our profession need to take a leaf from the book of those five students who have complained. We need to stand strong and not allow ourselves and each other to sit silent or merely whisper about this. We shouldn’t accept this behaviour as an inevitable rite of passage in our careers. The irony is that many of us are exceptional advocates for our clients yet not for ourselves and each other.

To those few guilty male colleagues, let me break it down for you simply–

  • Interviews I heard today suggested that consumption of alcohol at workplace functions is a contributing factor to sexual harassment. Alcohol is no excuse. If having a few drinks causes you to make bad decisions, behave inappropriately and to abuse your position of trust and seniority, you have a much bigger problem. Do what you need to deal with it.
  • The target of your behaviour is not amused or enamoured by it. That is no reflection on their sense of humour or their sexuality. The target of your behaviour is not a “prude”, “frigid” or “unable to take a joke”. Your behaviour isn’t a joke. Unwanted sexual attention or comments about one’s physical appearance are not a turn on.
  • As a starting point – here’s a simple litmus test: if you wouldn’t say something to your male colleagues, don’t say it to your female ones. Never. Just zip it. If you wouldn’t act in a certain manner towards your male colleagues, don’t conduct yourself that way with your female ones. At the very least it is not appropriate. At its worse, it is criminal. At any level on the spectrum, it can destroy a women’s sense of security and self and can ruin careers.
  • Finally, let’s be very clear – the women of my profession talk to one another. We may not be parading the red carpet dressed in black with Time’s Up badges adorned but we confide in one another about your behaviour. Yes, that’s right, we talk about you. Your reputations are muddied. We know who you are. We don’t forget. Even after 20+ years.
  • Shame on you. But more shame on you if, now being aware the time for change is here, you choose not to.
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