Harassment report rocks SA legal profession

South Australia’s Commissioner of Equal Opportunity has released a 200-page report following its review of harassment in the state’s legal profession.

Law clerks, paralegals, secretaries, office admins and law students made up more than 600 of the responses, which revealed that more than 42% of survey participants had experienced sexual or discriminatory harassment in the profession.

This included one-third who had experienced it more than once and 43% of survey respondents who reportedly had experienced offensive comments or jokes made about a personal attribute.

The key harassment drivers within the legal profession were found to be:

  • a patriarchal and hierarchical culture characterised by intense competition
  • a lack of cultural diversity, particularly in relation to people identifying as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander
  • deeply entrenched gender bias that underpins discriminatory behaviour
  • a ‘culture of silence’ whereby instances of harassment are minimised, normalised and kept quiet.

Despite a significant proportion of the profession now being female, and the number of women at the Bar increasing, the legal profession is still a male-dominated hierarchy.

The report found several respondents held the view that a number of women in positions of authority were perpetuating the culture of silence by failing to raise their voices against the drivers of harassment listed above.

And a number of participants claimed that some of the perpetrators of sexual harassment and discrimination were, in fact, women.

The review considered whether an independent complaints body was required to allow a person to make an anonymous complaint about a legal practitioner.

The commission said the report illuminated the fact that, because the profession operated in an adversarial environment where stress and distressing subject matter were common, civility could fall foul of expediency.

It suggested this inevitably led to harassment becoming normalised, minimised and disregarded.

“Whilst it is important to ensure that effective structures are implemented to respond to harassment when it occurs, it is equally important to take steps to effect cultural change so that the legal profession does not continue to resign itself to unacceptable behaviour being the norm,” the commission said.

The report, which followed a motion of the Legislative Council in October 2020, considers the existing regulatory framework, policies and procedures and makes a further 16 recommendations aimed at supporting the development of safe and inclusive workplaces in the legal profession.

Some of the recommendations are geared toward shifting the focus away from reliance on a victim making a formal complaint against a person of authority and power, instead focusing more on improving the culture within the profession.

“A number of these recommendations serve to reinforce educational initiatives already under way,” it said.

“For some, addressing the problem may be as simple a bringing someone else’s point of view to their attention. For others, it will be a matter of thinking before they speak or act.”

Read the full report and findings.

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