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Victorian Legal Services Board: Majority of lawyers say #MeToo

Victorian Legal Services Board: Majority of lawyers say #MeToo

By Fiona McLeay

Legal Services Workplace 


Lawyers are urged to speak up if they witness sexual harassment.

Survey findings
  • 61 per cent of female respondents reported experiencing sexually harassment. 
  • 12 per cent of male respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment. 
  • Men over the age of 40 and in senior positions are most likely to be the perpetrator. 
  • Women in their first five years in the profession are particularly vulnerable to being sexually harassed. 
  • Most incidents of sexual harassment in the profession go unreported.
  • Sexual harassment can have serious and long-lasting consequences on the victim.

Last year, the VLSB+C commissioned a survey into sexual harassment in the legal sector. 

We knew anecdotally that sexual harassment was a problem. I had heard from many people who had either first-hand experience of, or were a witness to, sexual harassment in a legal workplace. But my office was not receiving many complaints about lawyers sexually harassing others. So the experiences people were telling me about wasn’t reflected in our data. 

Our strategy “A clear direction” sets out our approach to regulating the profession, and one of the key principles is that we are evidence based. That means we base our decisions on the best available data, information and research. In the absence of comprehensive data about sexual harassment in the profession, we decided to undertake an independent survey, to understand the extent of the problem and inform our response to it.

A survey of practitioners was conducted over August and September 2019. Market research consultancy Ipsos was engaged to conduct the research. Survey questions were informed by the recent Australian Human Rights Commission survey into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces and designed to understand practitioners’ personal experiences of this issue. The results give an excellent comparison of legal workplaces in Victoria with workplaces in the rest of Australia. 

With nearly 2500 lawyers taking part, findings are statistically robust and reliable. Results were weighted so the data was not skewed by subgroups with a higher response rate (ie, among female legal professionals or those from metropolitan workplaces). And finally, the incidents of sexual harassment are recent – for the majority reporting incidents of harassment, it occurred in the past five years, and for 25 per cent it was in the last 12 months.

The most common types of sexual harassment experienced by respondents were non-physical in nature, for example intrusive questions about their own or someone else’s private life or physical appearance, followed by sexually suggestive sounds, comments or jokes and inappropriate staring or leering. However, one in five respondents experienced unwelcome physical contact. 

There are real and lasting consequences to sexual harassment. Some people left their workplaces and some even left the profession, feeling there was no future for them here. Others experienced significant emotional distress and embarrassment.

Reporting harassment

The vast majority of victims did not report the harassment. Common reasons for not reporting included: 

  • it was easier to keep quiet 
  • they didn’t want to confront the harasser 
  • they believed nothing would change 
  • concern about current or future job prospects. 

It was also clear many organisations lacked the necessary reporting mechanisms or the procedures to address harassment, and even where these existed, respondents were not confident that reporting would result in action.

The minority of respondents who did report incidents of harassment tended to be dissatisfied with the process, feeling that their complaint was ignored, they were treated less favourably after reporting, and there were no consequences for the harasser.

What you can do

The survey found almost half those who had been sexually harassed discussed the experience with their colleagues, and a third of respondents had personally witnessed harassment. We see it, we hear about it, it’s happening around us. 

If you see something, say something. Don’t let harassment go unchecked. 

What we will do

We have a regulatory strategy to address the findings of the survey. Our strategy involves proactive measures (such as meeting with firms to discuss their policies and procedures and developing information packs for students undertaking practical legal training) and reactive measures (dealing with complaints of sexual harassment by lawyers as they arise, and undertaking targeted audits of workplaces if required).

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

Our regulatory strategy for dealing with sexual harassment is available on our website, and I encourage you to read this along with the report itself. 

Ultimately, it’s up to all of us to change the culture that allows sexual harassment to go unchecked. How we operate as lawyers – the standards we hold ourselves to, the behaviours we expect from one another, what we tolerate and what we refuse to tolerate – are what defines us as a profession. 

Fiona McLeay is Victorian Legal Services Board CEO and Commissioner.

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