Gillard urges legal profession to improve reporting of sexual harassment
When it comes to addressing sexual harassment in law, Australia’s first female prime minister says we must focus on solutions that will create safer and more productive working environments, writes Samantha Mangwana.
When Julia Gillard took to the stage at the International Bar Association’s annual conference in Seoul on Monday, she used her trademark dry sense of humour to poke fun at herself.
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“You might still be left wondering why a former prime minister has turned up to speak. After all, it’s more than two decades since I practised law,” she said to the laughter from the audience. But very few people in the auditorium would have been questioning why Ms Gillard was chosen to deliver the keynote address on the topic of sexual harassment in the legal profession.
In 2012, she famously rose to her feet on the floor of Australia’s House of Representatives to deliver an impassioned and deeply personal speech about sexism and misogyny in politics. While Ms Gillard’s stirring remarks initially failed to resonate with the Canberra press gallery, they quickly went viral on the internet and she became something of an overnight feminist icon.
It was therefore no surprise that so many lawyers from around the world piled into the Coex Convention and Exhibition Centre in South Korea this week to listen to her address.
Ms Gillard began by describing the everlasting and irrevocable impact sexual harassment can have on its victims.
“Sexual harassment is not one horrible moment in time,” she said. “It undermines a sense of self, corrodes confidence, and can give rise to anxiety, depression – even suicidality.”
Citing the IBA’s landmark report “Us Too – Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession”, Ms Gillard said it was clear female lawyers were more likely than their male peers to be targeted.
But rather than dwell on the problem, the former solicitor chose instead to focus on solutions, declaring that our goal should be to create safer and more productive workplace environments.
“I want to explore how we can end up with a legal profession where sexual harassment and bullying have gone the way of ink pots and quills,” she said.
Acknowledging the impossibility of addressing an issue that is not visible, Ms Gillard urged law firms to encourage a culture of reporting inappropriate behaviour.
She said multiple universities in the US had recently introduced software allowing users to lodge an encrypted and timestamped record of their harassment. Users can then decide whether to upwardly refer the incident to trigger an investigation. The most interesting aspect of this online reporting tool is the optional repeat offender matching system, which connects users who make complaints about the same alleged perpetrator.
“This ensures the victim has the option to report harassment as part of a group,” Ms Gillard said.
These online reporting tools are also accessible from anywhere, allowing users to engage on their own terms, when it suits them. They are also becoming increasingly common. In fact, the NSW Legal Services Commissioner is about to launch one of its own, specifically focusing on sexual harassment and bullying.
Of course, increased reporting of these issues won’t solve everything. In fact, as Ms Gillard acknowledged in her speech, some law firms may initially regret opening up a can of worms.
“Things are likely to appear worse before improvements are evident,” Ms Gillard cautioned.
“It may well seem like we have moved from silence to epidemic but, as painful as this phase may feel, it is vital to stay the course.”
The former prime minister then turned her attention to what she described as the cult of the lone genius. This resonated with the audience, who knew instantly the type of lawyer to which she was referring. Over the years, many of my clients have come up against high billing lawyers whose conduct is vile and recurring but when brought to the attention of management, nothing is done. Moving from a mindset of protecting the cash cow and seeing this as a cost to the business is where change must start.
“Part of creating a new approach requires us to move beyond the cult of the lone genius, whose toxicity is excused as mere eccentricity,” Ms Gillard said.
“A culture that values respect and civility is one that can support policies and procedures to prevent and punish sexual harassment.”
Ms Gillard’s speech clearly resonated with the audience. Lawyers of both sexes could be overheard enthusiastically discussing the issues she raised. I hope their appetite for change will remain strong when increased reporting of sexual harassment lays bare the full scale of this insidious problem. We may well be shocked and overwhelmed by the size of the challenge but we owe it to the brave victims who share their stories to take meaningful action.
Samantha Mangwana is a legal consultant at Shine Lawyers.