Among the 622 South Australian legal professionals who disclosed their experiences with sexual harassment and assault, one recounted inappropriate text messages she received by a judge during a proceeding, one said she had been cornered in the bathroom by a man who exposed himself and another was “jumped” in her office.
Content warning: This article contains comments that deal with themes of sexual harassment and assault.
Reflecting on her own experiences, an anonymous respondent wrote into the South Australian government survey that she had been inappropriately touched during professional dinners “more times than I can remember”. Another said that the men who worked in her law firm had a running joke about “who could have sex on the most couches” in the office. Seven others were physically assaulted.
In one of the more shocking parts of the state government’s independent review into sexual harassment in the legal profession, another anonymous woman said that after dodging repeated requests or pressure for sex and other sexual and intimate acts, she was told that “he was going to get me drunk and take advantage of me”.
The comments form part of a review undertaken by the Acting Equal Opportunity commissioner Steph Halliday to provide a blueprint for both the legal profession and the government on driving education and cultural change with a view of stamping out harassment, including sexual and discriminatory harassment, across the sectors.
Across 16 recommendations, Ms Halliday called on the state government to replan their approach to eradicating misconduct – especially considering that the existing complaint mechanisms were not working, with information gathered from participants overwhelmingly suggesting a lack of confidence and trust in the process. Due to this, the commission did not recommend a new complaint body be established.
Attorney-General Vickie Chapman said the review was an “unpleasant read” but that it was a crucially important document for the profession: “The extent and nature of harassment within the legal profession is alarming and must be addressed.
“The fact that nearly half of respondents experienced a form of sexual harassment but didn’t report it because they were concerned of the impact it may have on their careers is unacceptable and should not happen in contemporary workplaces.”
More than 40 per cent of respondents reported they had experienced sexual or discriminatory harassment in the legal profession, and one-third had experienced it more than once. The allegations ranged from sexually suggestive and unwelcome comments, mostly by more senior male practitioners, through to sexual assault.
The most common victims of sexual harassment were associates, followed by senior associates and clerks or interns. In terms of where the harassment took place, it was most common in law firms, followed by government offices or agencies, tribunals and barristers’ chambers. Often, it also occurred during work-related trips or events.
In one instance, a woman recounted harassment while she was driving with her perpetrator during a work trip. She said he increasingly got more and more suggestive with his comments before he “finally asked me to sit on his lap”.
The most common offences were suggestive comments or jokes, followed by inappropriate staring and intrusive questions about their private life or appearance. One example of intrusive comments was from a woman who said she had been asked about her “sexual experiences” over a weekend by an older employee.
Worryingly, 10 per cent of respondents said they experienced sexual harassment during a proceeding. One woman said she was receiving text messages from a judge while she sat in his courtroom. During the live matter, she said he told her that he was “imagining me kneeling between his legs at the bench”.
The commission received multiple responses from individuals who had rejected advances only to be punished with it by being given subordinate duties, being ignored by their harasser – who was often their senior colleague – and the harasser attempting to prevent them from securing another job elsewhere.
Of the seven who reported sexual assault, one woman wrote in that she had been “jumped” by a salaried partner at a major firm when they were both the last to leave Friday night drinks at the office. Another very junior practitioner said she had received unwelcome and inappropriate touching, kissing, repeated requests for sex and attempts to remove clothing by a more senior practitioner.
One complaint came from a clerk who endured relentless bullying for years at her former workplace by a barrister. The instances persisted for some months before escalating: “The most egregious conduct involved pinning the clerk against his desk, grabbing her by the hips and rubbing his groin against her buttocks while making comments to the effect that men could be excused for being ‘creeps’ sometimes.”
The commission was also told of an incident during an after-work event in which the victim, at the time a university student completing work experience, was cornered in the bathroom by her male and much more senior harasser. He exposed his genitals to her, pushed them towards her face and told her to “suck it”.
While sexual harassment is overwhelmingly perpetuated against women, the survey found that men were more likely to be sexually harassed with sexually explicit images or gifts. When they complain, the stigma is usually that they “should have taken up” the offer, along with suggestions of “what kind of man are you?”.
The commission heard from numerous participants whose view was that a number of women in positions of authority were further perpetuating the culture of silence by failing to raise their voice against the drivers of harassment. Worse still, a number of participants indicated that some of the perpetrators were women.
Ms Chapman said she was committed to tackling both sexual and discriminatory harassment in the workplace and will be carefully considering the recommendations. She said she has already acted to provide the review to key stakeholders, including the Law Society of South Australia and the Courts Administration Authority.
“I’m pleased to see that a number of staff felt confident enough to speak up, and it’s now incumbent on both the government and the profession to listen to what they’ve said and consider how we can move to better protect people working in the profession in future,” Ms Chapman said.
“The Attorney-General’s department is the largest employer in the legal profession in South Australia and I will be considering each of Ms Halliday’s recommendations as they relate to both government and that agency in detail.”
Help is available. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Respect on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). Each law society and bar association also has further contacts available on their respective websites.