The Women Lawyers Association of the ACT were recently given the opportunity to make a submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces. Our submission to the AHRC can be found here and was informed by the data and results gathered from a recent survey into the nature and prevalence of sexual harassment in legal workplaces in the ACT.
The survey results revealed that sexual harassment is widespread in the ACT legal profession with more than 57% of lawyers surveyed in the ACT reporting being sexually harassed at work. Nearly half of those surveyed also reported witnessing another person being sexually harassed at work.
Other key findings from the survey were:
While we received reports from male and female lawyers across the ACT, the survey results revealed that it is overwhelmingly women who experience sexual harassment whilst perpetrators are overwhelmingly male.
In 62% of cases lawyers reported being harassed by someone they directly reported to at work.
Sexual harassment is predominantly driven by power imbalances at work, which is a significant problem in the legal sector in particular as the legal profession is traditionally very hierarchical.
Sexual harassment often goes under reported with only 22% of lawyers who had been sexually harassed having reported it.
Lawyers commonly don’t report sexual harassment because they are worried their employer won’t deal with their complaint in a professional and impartial manner, and because of a concern it may damage their careers.
We also found lawyers tend to play down or minimise their experiences as not serious enough or not worth complaining about.
WLA ACT has made a number of recommendations to the AHRC to address sexual harassment, including amending the Fair Work Act 2009 to allow victims of sexual harassment to seek assistance from the Fair Work Commission, similar to the current anti-bullying provisions. WLA ACT also recommends prohibiting the use of non-disclosure or confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements. However, WLA ACT considers that legal change also needs to be supported by training and education in order to create cultural change in ACT legal workplaces.
WLA ACT would like to thank the AHRC for the opportunity to make a submission and for the support of its members and their colleagues and contacts for completing the survey and assisting with addressing this serious issue.