Harassment is 'embedded within the culture' in many legal workplaces, new study finds
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Sexual harassment still affects female lawyers at all levels, including judges, partners, general counsels and law professors, according to a study released Tuesday by the Women Lawyers on Guard, a national nonprofit organization that focuses on equality and justice.
The study is based on an August 2019 survey, disseminated through bar associations, online groups and individuals’ networks. More than 2,100 people responded to the survey; 92% of them identified as female.
Harassment ranges from criminal to “simply unconscionable” behavior, according to the study. Seventy-three percent of the respondents reported that the incidents were part of the workplace culture, or there were significant parts of the workplace where people “got away with” misbehavior.
The respondents were asked to list the time frame in which harassment occurred, in five- to 10-year increments going back 30 years. The survey found that sexual harassment by partners and supervising partners does not appear to have lessened in the last 30 years.
“Law firms say they have a ‘no jerks’ policy, but this policy doesn’t apply when that partner brings in a lot of money,” said one respondent.
Said another: “Inappropriate comments from white male law firm partners are just ‘normal’ during your 20s. What makes this behavior worse is that the scared 20-somethings being victimized remain scared and never speak up.”
One change over the last 30 years is in the prevalence of different types of sexual harassment.
The percentage of sexual assaults, threats and bribes for sex has decreased. But the percentage of sexually offensive jokes, ogling or leering, rating of attractiveness and sexualized name-calling has increased.
Only 23% of the harassment took place in private, one-on-one settings. Thirty-seven percent of the harassment took place at the office or in business meetings off-site; 22% occurred at social events; 6% occurred during business travel; and 9% occurred online or digitally. A small percentage occurred in the classroom.
Most people don’t report sexual harassment for reasons that include fear of job loss, negative career repercussions, and doubts about whether they will be believed. Half of the respondents said that when they reported harassment, the harasser suffered no consequences. In 4% of the cases, the harassment worsened after reporting.
“As an associate, you cannot report your superiors and expect to make partner,” said one respondent. “As a partner, you aren’t a team player if you report a fellow partner. … Especially [as] a litigator, you are expected to address these situations yourself, one on one, or suck it up.”
The survey focused on the effects of harassment, rather than its prevalence. Those who witnessed harassment, as well as those who experienced harassment directed at them, were grouped together.
The survey found that sexual harassment has long-term negative effects. Sixty-one percent of the respondents reported anxiety about their careers or workplaces; 40% feared retaliation; 37% experienced a loss in productivity; and 28% reported a negative impact on their careers. Only 18% reported no impact.
“The results of this survey lead to the inescapable conclusion that the system for addressing sexual harassment in the legal profession is still broken,” the report concluded.
“The survey demonstrates that this harassment and misconduct is sapping individual productivity and adversely impacting organizational economics at the very least, and destroying careers and organizations’ productivity, at the worst,” the report said.