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Sexual harassment in Victorian legal workplaces is common and disproportionally affects women

1 April, 2020

Victorian Legal Services Commissioner, Fiona McLeay, has today released new data that shows sexual harassment in Victorian legal workplaces is common, and that it disproportionally affects women.

The results of the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner (VLSB+C) 2019 study show that one in three survey respondents had experienced sexual harassment at some point in their career.

However, there are significant differences between the experiences of women and men in the profession, with 61% of female respondents and 12% of male respondents reporting experiencing sexual harassment in Victorian legal workplaces. 

The study consisted of two surveys, conducted in August and September 2019. The first survey was sent to all Victorian legal practitioners to collect data about their experiences of sexual harassment, while the second was sent to principals of law practices to collect data about how sexual harassment is managed in their workplaces. 

“Sexual harassment affects millions of people across Australia, and it is very concerning to me that so many lawyers in Victoria have experienced this.  And this is not historic data – for a majority of people reporting sexual harassment in our survey it occurred within the last five years, and for 25%, this was in the last 12 months” Ms McLeay said.

Ms McLeay says that the survey finding clearly show that sexual harassment is happening, and that junior women in the legal profession are most vulnerable.

“Of the survey respondents who had personally experienced harassment – nearly all of them were women, over half had five or less years’ experience at the time of the most recent incident, and many were either in junior roles or were not yet fully qualified”.

The survey findings also show that harassers were almost always male (90%), often in a more senior role than the affected person (72%) and regularly aged over 40 (66%), and that it was common for a sexual harassment incident to be part of a pattern of behaviour from the harasser (40%), and for the harasser to be known for being involved in similar incidents (48%).

"The data suggests there is a power imbalance that allows sexual harassment to occur and go unchecked.  In their free comments, survey respondents told us about a culture of impunity that protected harassers, with threats of defamation and a lack of confidence in the system to address complaints getting in the way of implementing real action” Ms McLeay said. 

“This is also demonstrated in the worrying figure that 81% of survey respondents did not report their experience to their organisation”. 

The study found that many workplaces don’t have the policies, procedures or reporting mechanisms in place to address harassment, and that training is rare.

“Law firms need to tackle this issue head-on and do more to ensure the safety of their workers, not just because they have a legal obligation, but because it’s the right thing to do” Ms McLeay said. 

Ms McLeay says that while the findings of the survey are concerning, there is a lot that can be done in the short and long-term to improve awareness and understanding of harassment and improve the capacity of law practices to prevent, respond to and manage sexual harassment in legal workplaces.

“In the next six months we will be working with stakeholders to develop free resources to help workers recognise harassment, and to help firms implement policies and procedures that can address harassment if it does occur”.

“However, it’s also clear that formal reporting mechanisms alone cannot stop harassment. As a profession, we need to address the underlying cultural issues that allow sexual harassment to go unchecked”. 

The study showed that senior leaders’ perception of sexual harassment in the profession is vastly different from that of individual lawyers, with the majority of principals in surveyed organisations saying that incidents of sexual harassment in their organisations are ‘very rare’.

However, over 50% of legal practitioners who responded to the survey reported either personally witnessing sexual harassment or hearing about it directly from someone who experienced it.
“I urge organisations to listen to their employees, to hear their stories and their ideas for how sexual harassment can be stopped”.

“As the regulator, we will be doing everything in our power to investigate and respond to complaints about sexual harassment. We have the power to investigate individual lawyers, as well as legal workplaces, where the data shows ‘hotspots’ of sexual harassment behaviour” Ms McLeay said. 

“We encourage anyone who has experienced or witnessed harassment to call our harassment hotline or email our sexual harassment inbox to talk through options with our staff”.

“Ultimately it’s up to all of us to change our culture.  How we operate as lawyers – the standards we hold ourselves to, the behaviours we expect form one another, what we tolerate and refuse to tolerate – are what defines us as a profession”. 

For further information about the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner’s sexual harassment study, please contact Alicia Semple, Manager Strategic Communications and Engagement on: 0407 127 701

The report and regulatory strategy can be found on our Sexual Harassment page.

You can also read our report FAQs here

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