Sexual harassment in the legal industry
Sexual harassment in the legal industry is more publicly acknowledged than ever before, and industry leaders need to effect cultural change and implement prevention strategies to ensure their employees have a safe working environment.
In April 2019 the Redfern Community Legal Centre published a report titled ‘Legal Responses to Sexual Harassment at Work’ which made 46 recommendations on how to ‘build a culture where women can access and enjoy their right to work, in safe workplaces that are free from sexual harassment.’ Whilst individuals are of course responsible for their own conduct, it’s important for all employers to recognise the influence a toxic work environment can have on staff and how that can directly lead to increased incidents of sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment is defined under section 28A of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) as when a person makes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours or otherwise engages in unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in which a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would have anticipated the possibility that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated. Safe Work Australia has identified the following work groups as being particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment:
- workers who identify as LGBTQIA+
- workers under 30 years of age
- Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander workers
- workers with a disability
- workers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds
- migrant workers or workers holding temporary visas, and
- people in insecure working arrangements, e.g. casual, labour hire or part-time work.
Sexual harassment is unfortunately normalised in some legal workplaces, with one female law graduate reporting in this Sydney Morning Herald article that she was told to ‘get used to it’, and that ‘[sexual harassment is] normal in the profession.’ On 30th June 2021, Parramatta Federal Circuit Court Judge Joe Harman resigned from his position amid allegations that he had sexually harassed two women. Prior to his resignation, the women’s complaints had been handled by an internal conduct committee, chaired by Julie Dodds-Streeton QC, which ultimately upheld the women’s claims.
Discussing the issue of workplace sexual harassment is a vital first step in combatting the toxic behaviours that can cause harm to others in the legal industry. It’s often difficult and uncomfortable for individuals to come forward with workplace sexual harassment complaints and claims, which is why it’s necessary for firms to address the issue at the source and play a role in supporting and educating their staff.
Sexual harassment can also result in a breach of the Barristers’ Rules or Solicitors’ Rules. You can learn about handling breaches of the Rules and other complaints on Episode 4 of Hearsay ‘Risky Business: Handling Professional Responsibility Complaints and Claims’ with Lawcover solicitor Jennifer McMillan.