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Sexual harassment report FAQs

Frequently asked questions about the sexual harassment report findings

The surveys were conducted by international research company IPSOS, on behalf of the VLSB+C. Ipsos is a global leader in market research.

The data from both of our surveys were adjusted to ensure that they were not skewed or overshadowed by groups with higher response rates, and that the results were balanced to represent the makeup of the Victorian profession and the entities invited to participate.

Because of the number of people who responded to our Practitioner survey, and the way it was designed, conducted and analysed, we can extrapolate our findings across the profession and confidently say – for example – that over one third of lawyers and nearly two thirds of women lawyers have experienced harassment.

All of our statistics for the Practitioner survey are reliable within a margin of ±2% at a 95% confidence level, which means that if we’d received responses from all lawyers invited to participate in the survey, the percentage of the entire profession who would have experienced sexual harassment would be somewhere between 34% and 38% (i.e. within a margin of ±2% of the 36% of survey respondents who told us they had experienced this behaviour, and over one third of lawyers).  

The Australian Human Rights Commission, in its report on the findings of its fourth national sexual harassment survey for all Australian workplaces, draws similar conclusions for various industries. 

When asked when they had experienced sexual harassment, 57% of people said the harassment occurred within the last 5 years. For 25% of respondents, it occurred within the last 12 months. 

The most common forms of sexual harassment reported by survey respondents were non-physical, such as intrusive questioning about their private lives or physical appears, and sexually suggestive comments, sounds and jokes. 

However, 18% of respondents reported physical harassment, including unwanted touching and kissing. Actual or attempted sexual assault was reported by 2% of respondents who’d experienced sexual harassment.

No. The survey results have been adjusted to account for biases that may have resulted from over- representation of particular demographics.

Yes, but in much smaller numbers. 12% of men reported experiencing sexual harassment, compared to 61% of women. 

81% of respondents did not report their experience of sexual harassment. 

Common reasons for not doing so were that: ‘it was easier to keep quiet’ (80%); they believed ‘it was a minor incident’ (66%); and they lacked confidence in the system in place to address the incident (59%).

Other common reasons for not reporting an incident of harassment included: concern about experiencing negative reactions from colleagues or the harasser (67%); the belief that others would think that the respondent was over-reacting (67%); and generally, not wanting others to know about the incident (52%).

Then typical perpetrator is male (90%), in a more senior role than the victim (72%) and aged over 40 (66%). Half of the time, they are all three of these. For 40% of respondents it had been part of a pattern of behaviour by that perpetrator.

No. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s fourth national survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces found that 80% of women in the information, media and telecommunications sector had been harassed in the workplace in the last 5 years.  74% of women in the mining sector and 66% of women in the arts and recreation services industry have been harassed.

We have a regulatory strategy for addressing the findings of the survey.  This involves proactive measures such as:

  • meeting with firms to discuss their policies and procedures and helping implement and improve best practice workplace sexual harassment policies,
  • developing information for students undertaking Practical Legal Training,
  •  developing regulatory guidance for the profession on sexual harassment,
  • collecting further data about workplace culture from both lawyers and principals to help improve and implement policy,

and reactive measures such as:

  • dealing with complaints of sexual harassment by lawyers as they arise, and taking disciplinary action against individuals (and targeted audits of workplaces) where appropriate

We will also work with stakeholders to develop resources that will support organisations across the sector to implement the policies and reporting procedures that will make their workplaces safer, and address some of the cultural issues that are holding back change. We will also be continuing to listen to lawyers to learn more about the problem and hear their ideas to bring about the cultural change that this report identifies as necessary. 

This will be a focus for 2020, but we acknowledge the challenges currently being faced by the profession with COVID-19 and it may delay our ability to implement some initiatives.  However, we encourage firms and their lawyers to read the report and the regulatory strategy and put in place any measures they can to reduce sexual harassment in the workplace.

In the last 12 months we’ve had 19 contacts and 5 complaint investigations, 3 of which are still ongoing. Many of the complaints and enquiries we receive about a lawyer who is accused of harassment also include other issues of alleged misconduct, such as poor behaviour to clients and staff, bullying, poor trust account practices and possible criminal matters such as assault and stalking. 

People can call us and ask to speak to one of the special case handlers. We also have designated email address that anyone can use to report sexual harassment and talk through their options. Only the special case handlers have access to this email.

If the person would like to take the matter further, and there is sufficient evidence to do so, we will conduct an investigation.  If Victoria Police are already investigating we may hold off until their investigation is complete and/or charges are laid.  

We can file charges at VCAT if the conduct amounts to unsatisfactory professional conduct or professional misconduct. VCAT can then make a number of orders. We can also vary, suspend or cancel practising certificates, which means the lawyer can either no longer practice and provide legal advice, or there are restrictions on the way in which they can practice.  A lawyer has the right to appeal this at VCAT.  In the most serious of cases, we can also apply to the Supreme Court to have the lawyer removed from the roll, meaning they can no longer refer to themselves as a lawyer.

They play some role. Although very few people who reported experiencing sexual harassment made a formal complaint about it – only 44 people – in 13% of cases, the respondent was asked to sign an NDA.  

Not necessarily. In many cases victims do not want to end the careers of perpetrators, they just want to the harassment to stop. Perpetrators whose behaviour is addressed effectively may modify their behaviour in response. 

Where appropriate, we may choose to take disciplinary action, in which case a perpetrator’s name would be made public.

About 36% of respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment. This is broadly consistent with the results of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s fourth national survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, which found that one in three people (33%) had experienced sexual harassment at work in the last five years.  We’ve found that women are much more likely to have been harassed in the workplace than men, consistent with the AHRC’s findings.

Flirting and sexual harassment are not the same thing. Flirtation which is based on mutual attraction is not sexual harassment because it is not unwelcome. Flirting that is unwelcome and that a reasonable person would anticipate, in all the circumstances, would make the other person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated, is sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is defined by how it is received as opposed to how it is intended.

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