Women in the Law

Survey finds sexual harassment still a problem in New York courts, and lawyers are worst offenders

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A majority of female lawyers responding to a survey by a New York judicial committee reported inappropriate or demeaning conduct by other attorneys.

More than 5,300 lawyers participated in the Gender Survey 2020 by the New York State Judicial Committee on Women in the Courts. The survey found that the treatment of women in New York courts has improved markedly since a 1986 survey found that gender bias in the courts was a pervasive problem. But significant areas of bias remain.

A press release is here.

The report noted that an area of progress is the number of women now on the bench and the number of women in other positions traditionally occupied by male court employees.

The survey nonetheless found notable differences between the perception of male and female lawyers, with male lawyers being less likely to report inappropriate conduct in the courthouse.

Among the findings:

• In response to a question about whether female lawyers experience inappropriate or offensive verbal comments, jokes or obscene gestures by other lawyers, 23% of female lawyers said it happened often, while 44% reported that it happened sometimes. Five percent of male lawyers said such conduct often occurred, while 27% said it happened sometimes.

• In response to a question about whether female lawyers experience unwelcome physical contact by other lawyers, 10% of female lawyers said it happened often, while 36% said it happened sometimes. Three percent of male lawyers said unwelcome physical contact happened often, while 16% said it occurred sometimes.

• A majority of female and male lawyers said unwanted touching and inappropriate comments were rarely perpetrated by court personnel and even more rarely perpetrated by judges.

• 51% of the female lawyers and 13% of the male lawyers agreed with the statement that male judges appear to give more credibility to the statements and arguments of male attorneys than female attorneys.

• Only 31% female lawyers and 49% of male lawyers said they knew how to report a claim of misconduct in a court system facility.

Several lawyers offered comments in the section of the survey about the courthouse environment, according to the report.

“A number of female attorneys described a culture that tolerates such behaviors as the use of terms of endearment to subtly intimidate female attorneys,” the report said. “Inappropriate jokes, putdowns, solicitation for personal information, various types of sexual harassment, and physical touching were also identified in the survey responses.

“A few female attorneys commented that they did not think that sexual harassment existed, in contrast to a substantial number of male attorneys who indicated they had not witnessed the behaviors above. A few male attorneys said the questions were ‘silly,’ ‘a witch hunt,’ ‘more imagined than real,’ while others reported they suspected that being male prevented them from recognizing the experiences of their female colleagues.”

The New York Law Journal and Law360 had coverage of the report.

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