#Metoo, us too and how we all need to respond to workplace bullying and sexual harassment.

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This piece is from Lacey & Co’s Principal, Elizabeth Lacey.

It has been just over a year since the International Bar Association published Us Too?, a report revealing endemic sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination in the legal profession, globally. We’re looking forward to a fireside chat this week with its author, Kieran Pender, hosted by our friends, Sunny and Sylvain, from Whispli.

A global campaign followed the release of Us Too? in 2019. The anniversary of Us Too, and our chat, coincide with recent revelations that former High Court Justice Dyson Heydon sexually harassed women while in one of the most powerful legal positions in Australia. The vast majority of those who’ve suffered the abuse of power that is sexual harassment, are women.

The courage of the women who have spoken against Heydon is remarkable, but the sexual harassment they’ve disclosed is anything but revelatory in our profession. It’s rife, endemic, exhausting.   

There is, though, hope in Keifel CJ’s landmark statement. Her Honour, on behalf of the High Court, has said that she and her fellow judges are “ashamed”, that “we have made a sincere apology to the six women whose complaints were borne out”. Her Honour acknowledges how difficult it would have been for these women to come forward (now there’s a euphemism). Keifel CJ also says that “Their accounts of their experiences … have been believed”. 

The High Court’s shame.

You are believed.

These are such very new statements in this profession. This failure to allow safe passage for women within the law is anything but resolved. The onus is on the profession to continue to do much more than talk about how to protect lawyers’ safety. 

Ten recommendations arose out of Us Too?:

  1. Raise global awareness of sexual harassment and bullying in the legal profession, which is rife.
  2. Revise and better implement policies and standards which effectively reform workplace culture.
  3. Introduce regular, customised training to reduce the prevalence of sexual harassment and bullying.
  4. Increase dialogue and best-practice sharing so lawyers can learn from each other in fighting sexual harassment and bullying.
  5. Take ownership of the problem.
  6. Gather data and improve transparency to better understand risk factors and causes.
  7. Explore flexible reporting models to make reporting sexual harassment and bullying a better experience for survivors.
  8. Engage with younger members of the profession, who are disproportionately impacted, to develop solutions.
  9. Appreciate the wider context and recognise a broader need to address interrelated workplace dynamics such as diversity, workplace satisfaction and mental health.
  10. Maintain momentum to eradicate sexual harassment and bullying from the profession.

Every day, Lacey & Co has the enormous privilege of working with young women lawyers and soon to be lawyers.  We’re supported in our work – including this blog piece, thank you Margarita and Katie – by magnificently talented interns from Monash, and sometimes Deakin. 

Monash’s Margarita and Katie, our present interns, are talented, hard-working, and fiercely intelligent. We should be assured that the best and the brightest, as they are, from one of Australia’s top law schools will experience a meteoric rise. Ours is, after all, a profession where, for decades now, there have been more than 50% female graduates. But such a rise is often vastly impeded in a profession where the inequality is as rife as Us Too? and the profession’s most recent public shame makes clear.

Particularly in the law, the gender pay gap is not just a game my kids play when they’re arguing about who gets the most dumplings in the noodle soup. A recent Tweet from Greg Jericho, Columnist on economics and politics for The Guardian Australia confirms the shocking disparity, the figures saying more than anything we can and you can witness them for yourself here.

Any discussion about the injustices at the heart of our profession simply must engage with all women, with particular recognition of the additional barriers of relentless and ongoing racism and sexism, for Indigenous women, and other women of colour in the law. 

Meanwhile, let’s just allow the cognitive dissonance in this country to blow our collective minds. Despite the High Court’s statement, John Howard remains firmly embedded in the Jurassic Age and considered it appropriate to defend his appointment of Heydon to the bench, referring to him as an “excellent judge”. It’s clear that a character reference from John Howard should take anyone with an ounce of self-respect off for a shower to wash the predator off. Howard and I also appear to define “excellence” somewhat differently. Dr Vivienne Thom AM’s findings that he repeatedly abused the powers of his office and transgressed the very laws he was required to interpret, doesn’t see Heydon popping up on my “excellent judge” list. 

So, on Thursday, we very much welcome taking another look at Us Too’s recommendations, with its author, Kieran. Lacey & Co is fiercely protective of the remarkable young graduates and interns – mostly women – with whom we have the pleasure to work and from whom we have the pleasure to learn. We must do whatever it takes to ensure that our profession is a safer, more equitable place. We must continue to work and act and call, loud and clear, for serious targets to be set and met that remove the enormous barriers to access in our profession, and beyond. 

If you’d like to know more, you can watch this recording of Lacey & Co’s Principal Elizabeth Lacey in a fireside chat with Kieran Pender Senior Legal Advisor with the International Bar Association (IBA) Legal Policy and Research Unit, along with Sunny Jobson and Sylvain Mansotte, from Whispli.