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Having women speak up ignores real burden of responsibility

Rather than asking victims of bullying and sexual harassment to report such misconduct, the legal profession must ask itself why people cannot be burdened with the responsibility of simply not engaging in such behaviour, argues one lawyer.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 24 July 2019 Big Law
Sophie Ciufo
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Marque Lawyers lawyer Sophie Ciufo (pictured) explained that, by speaking up, victims of bullying and sexual harassment are “burdened with facing problematic reactions” to their reporting, which may include further victimisation, repeated attacks, not being believed, retaliation, and having their career adversely impacted.

“Placing the onus on victims to speak up perpetuates these systemic reactions. The construction that reporting the problematic, and often criminal behaviour, of perpetrators is a victim’s responsibility also perpetuates the notion that a victim is ultimately responsible for their perpetrator’s behaviour against them,” she said.

Instead, the Australian legal profession needs to ask itself a basic question: “why is it so problematic for people to be burdened with the responsibility of just not bullying or sexually harassing people?”


A shift is required, Ms Ciufo submitted, away from women speaking up or putting up with misconduct and toward directly addressing the behaviour of men in legal workplaces and ensuring that perpetrators do not bully or sexually harass in the first place.

Bullying and sexual harassment is a “deep-seated and toxic culture that is particularly prevalent in legal workplaces”, Ms Ciufo continued, while noting that analysis of such misconduct is not limited to said workplaces.

“Nor can we overlook that the gender representation is heavily weighted toward women representing a large portion of the victims and men representing a large portion of the perpetrators,” she added.

“We still live in a culture where the first response to a woman’s brutal rape and murder is to tell women look after their own safety and to question why she was walking alone. We still live in a culture where a woman is responsible for answering for the criminal actions of a man against her and her body. We still live in a culture where we need to find a reason to make sense of these abhorrent events to alleviate our own terror and, to do so, we unthinkingly turn our focus to the victim.

“This means we end up seeing perpetrators as environmental threats, not as a thinking person who made a choice.”

Such rhetoric “frames, and seeps into” the toxic workplace culture, she asserted.

“By placing responsibility on victims, we are unthinkingly turning our focus onto them to find a reason why bullying and sexual harassment occurs. In doing so, we are ignoring the actual reasons of gender inequality, abuse of power and disrespect,” she said.

“We are also ultimately ignoring the real need to figure out why it is so hard for men and others in positions of power to respect women, respect co-workers and simply stop with the bullying and sexual harassment.”

The remarks come in response to comments from Women Lawyers Association of NSW president and barrister Larissa Andelman, who said – as part of a broader discussion about the importance of bystander provisions – that female lawyers who stand up for their rights and those of others will be viewed favourably for leadership roles in an evolving legal environment.

Bystander provisions can help minimise the frequency of misconduct such as bullying and sexual harassment, Ms Ciufo ceded, by having a deterrent effect and creating a more supportive environment.

“However, there is the risk that problems faced by victims speaking up will also be faced by bystanders, reminiscent of that schoolyard cry of ‘nobody likes a tattletale’,” she warned.

“I agree with supporters of bystander provisions that the training needs to be behavioural and call on people to interact with their own ethics and beliefs. But I believe it needs to go beyond training people to be responsible bystanders and should instead focus on training people how not to be a bully or a harasser (as sadly, it seems that is something that needs to be taught).”

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