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Young Lawyers: A call to action

Young Lawyers: A call to action

By Rose Inglis

Workplace Workplace Relations 

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Young lawyers are particularly vulnerable to workplace sexual harassment. There are steps you can take to change the status quo.

Tips
Four steps you can take to combat sexual harassment:
  • ask yourself, would you put it in writing?
  • don’t stand on the sidelines
  • upgrade your knowledge toolkit
  • be a part of the change. 

At a recent legal profession event two male lawyers were overheard making a lewd remark about a woman in attendance. Alarmingly, these two professionals were from the #MeToo generation, which should know better about the implications of this type of conversation.

Sexist attitudes are not confined to a couple of bad eggs, nor to older professionals. The casual and dismissive nature of these remarks is symptomatic of a legal culture where workplace sexual harassment and bullying are rife and largely ignored.1

To combat this conduct, fundamental changes in behaviour and attitudes are necessary. Here are four steps that can be implemented to help combat sexual harassment and bullying.

1. Ask yourself, would you put it in writing?

Sexually harassing behaviours involve sexist jokes, suggestive comments and/or making unwanted approaches or physical contact.2 These behaviours make the target of the harassment feel uncomfortable and disrespected and impact negatively on their morale and self-esteem. They also place the perpetrator at risk of investigation and disciplinary action.

Do not be the person who jokes that a female colleague should clean up the kitchen, or that she got a promotion because she is sleeping with the boss. Such comments are not a joke. Bullying disguised as humour is still bullying.

2. Don’t stand on the sidelines

It is important to speak up and support your colleague if you witness or hear sexual harassment. Say something and/or report the behaviour through your organisation’s reporting system.3 Speaking up will support the target emotionally, discourage the perpetrator from similar behaviour and contribute to a culture that condemns harassing behaviours. Silence provides tacit approval and condones a culture of sexual harassment and bullying.

3. Upgrade your knowledge toolkit 

Taking action is easier said than done. It is essential to understand the root causes of sexual harassment and bullying so that they are effectively addressed. 

Take steps to build knowledge and skills that will empower you to speak up when confronted with harassing behaviour. Women’s Health Victoria runs an active bystander training workshop4 and the LIV runs CPD events that address this issue. 

4. Be a part of the change

Listening to young lawyers’ perspectives and ensuring their voices are involved in efforts to address bullying and sexual harassment is vital.5

To get involved young lawyers can engage with committees that formulate workplace policies and procedures, engage in informal dialogue or report incidents anonymously.

They can also get involved in the Australian Law Students’ Association (ALSA) National Sexual Harassment and Bullying in the Legal Profession Awareness Raising Week (27 April–1 May). 

LIV Young Lawyers will co-host a panel discussion and workshop exploring the issues. Keep an eye on LinkedIn for details.

The status quo is changing

While the opening anecdote is concerning, there are changes that suggest the profession is on the cusp of widespread cultural change. An increasing number of legal professionals – from students to managing partners – are refusing to accept conduct that was once tolerated as a normal aspect of professional life. Legal professionals are becoming empowered to speak up for themselves and others when confronted with insulting, derogatory and negative behaviour.

If we are a little kinder, more empathetic and supportive in our professional conduct, we will be the change we want to see. 

VLSB+C Sexual harassment in the Victorian legal sector


Rose Inglis is LIV Young Lawyers manager. To discuss getting involved in the LIV Young Lawyers community, contact younglaw@liv.asn.au.

1. See eg, International Bar Association, “Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession”, 2018, https://www.ibanet.org/bullying-and-sexual-harassment.aspx and Women’s Legal Service Victoria’s “Starts with us: legal and justice sector action to prevent violence against women”, 2019, https://womenslegal.org.au/files/file/Starts%20With%20Us%20discussion%20paper.pdf.
2. See VicHealth, “Take action: empowering bystanders to act on sexist and sexually harassing behaviours”, 2019, https://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/-/media/ResourceCentre/PublicationsandResources/PVAW/Take-Action-Bystander_Oct2019.pdf?la=en&hash=D3150832DDE6E645A0B854AC2CD57B119E03BD22
3. Note 2 above, p5.
4. See Women’s Health Victoria’s “Active Bystander Training”, https://whv.org.au/training/active-bystander-training.
5. Note 1 above, IBA report

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