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Workplace harassment systemic

Workplace harassment systemic

By Elena Tsalanidis

Wellbeing Women's Rights Workplace Workplace Relations 


Sexual harassment is one reason women leave the law but, according to a VEOHRC report, two-thirds of the women who were harassed did not complain.

How we talk about sexual harassment and assault in the workplace has profoundly changed since the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Men and women have come forward with disturbing allegations levelled at other well-known identities. These issues are universal, as the viral #metoo campaign has demonstrated.

“Sexual harassment is one of the key reasons women are leaving the law and this needs to be addressed,” says 2017 Law Council of Australia president Fiona McLeod.1 The Equal Opportunity Act 2010 provides a positive duty on employers to “take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation as much as possible”.2 Despite this legislative duty, overwhelmingly, women lawyers experience sexual harassment in the workplace more often than their male colleagues.3

The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission released a report in 2012 that focused on the experiences of women in the legal profession.4The report revealed that 23.9 per cent of the survey’s respondents experienced sexual harassment while working as a lawyer or trainee in Victoria. Sexual harassment was most likely to occur in the early stages of a woman’s career with 63 per cent of incidents occurring within the first year of employment. Women experienced sexually suggestive comments, jokes, leering, intrusive personal questions and unwelcome and inappropriate physical contact. In 78 per cent of cases, the harasser held a more senior position, such as an immediate supervisor, employer or a higher-ranking co-worker.5

The report depicts the systemic challenges that permit this behaviour to persist – male-dominated office environments, lack of transparency in career progression and remuneration, human resources serving the senior partnership rather than staff and fear of reputational damage and negative career repercussions. These factors perpetuate a culture of silence and shame for speaking out. Two-thirds of the women who experienced sexual harassment did not make a complaint and 29 per cent did not tell anyone at all.

It is particularly disheartening as young female lawyers are by all accounts in an advantageous position compared with other women in society. They are educated, empowered and aware of their rights. But this neither prevents these actions from occurring, nor removes the systemic cultural practices where discrimination is entrenched. Women suffer severe impacts from sexual harassment, such as mental and physical health issues and work and economic consequences.

The report poses certain recommendations – providing sexual harassment and discrimination awareness training, continuing professional development, diversity initiatives, zero tolerance for inappropriate comments at work and the creation of guidelines.6 On a day to day basis, calling out inappropriate comments or jokes, reporting conduct or checking in when something seems amiss can also help.

Until allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace can be made without fear of retribution and shame, it is a bleak picture. In the wake of the Weinstein allegations, it is moving to see those brave individuals coming forward. There is now a supportive environment for those who choose to share their experiences. Society is listening. 


Elena Tsalanidis is an executive board member of Victorian Women Lawyers and a coordinator at the Supreme Court of Victoria.

1. Sarah Whyte, “He told me I should have gone along with it”, lawyers share more stories of sexual harassment, The Age (online), 28 October 2016,

2. Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic) s15.

3. According to the LCA, one in four women in the legal profession and one in 10 men have experienced sexual harassment.

4. The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, Changing the Rules: the experience of female lawyers in Victoria, 2012.

5. Note 4 above, 7-8.

6. Note 4 above, 9-11.

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