The evidence is in on changing workplace sexual harassment

Belinda Crosbie, Director at Morrissey Law + Advisory
Topics Gender
Belinda Crosbie

Since 1984, it has been unlawful in Australia to sexually harass someone in employment or in other areas of public life. Despite almost 40 years of legislated protections, workplace policies and training, reports from the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) indicate that around two in five women still experience sexual harassment in Australian workplaces generally. Those statistics are much worse in the law. Recent reports by the International Bar Association and Women Lawyers associations in each state and territory, indicate that sexual harassment in the Australian legal profession is endemic, with some of the highest rates in the world. Up to 72% of women in the legal profession reported being sexually harassed at work. Sex Discrimination and Equal Opportunity Commissioners in NSW and Victoria report that those rates have increased in 2020.

The personal impact of harassment on victims’ health, careers and finances is devastating. The financial and productivity costs of sexual harassment to business are enormous – with a conservative estimate of total cost to the Australian economy of $3.8 billion.  The largest share of that cost is borne by employers.

In 2018, the largest ever global survey of bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession found that workplace policies and training don't have the desired impact - respondents at workplaces with policies and training are just as likely to be bullied or sexually harassed as those without.

However, there is significant evidence showing that structural and cultural factors enable sexual harassment and abuse within organisations and workplaces, including the legal profession. Some authors have reported that by far, the greatest predictors of the occurrence of sexual harassment are organisational.

There is also good evidence on what those predictors are. Many organisations globally have been subject to intense scrutiny of organisational and cultural factors which enable harassment, bullying and abuse to flourish, including by the AHRC and formal inquiries such as the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse. Those investigations have found that workplaces at higher risk of harassment, bullying and abuse:

  • Are male dominated because of the gender ratio, over-representation of men in senior leadership roles, the nature of work being 'non-traditional' for women, or a masculine workplace culture;
  • Are organised according to hierarchical structures;
  • Have low sensitivity to balancing work and personal obligations;
  • Have a performance-oriented culture rather than employee-oriented culture;
  • Grant exaggerated levels of power, status, superiority and entitlement to certain people;
  • Have unquestioning community respect and authority;
  • Have an organisational culture which cultivates isolation, and protects the reputation of perpetrators over the safety of victims;
  • Select leaders based on adherence to internal doctrine and commitment to the defence of the institution, rather than capacity for leadership;
  • Normalise harmful practices, bullying, dehumanisation, violence and harassment, sexualised cultures, being driven by results and the pursuit of excellence over the wellbeing of the team; and
  • Demand obedience and deference to authority.

This evidence indicates that the key to eliminating sexual harassment lies in the structure and cultural practices of our organisations.  Driving cultural changes in the legal profession can include:

  • Alternative business and leadership models:
    • Increasing the number of women in senior positions – women working in firms with 40% or more of senior positions held by women were less likely to report having been sexually harassed, bullied or intimidated in the workplace than those with fewer than 25% of women in senior positions;
    • Treating harassment, discrimination, bullying and intimidation as the serious Workplace Health and Safety issues they are;
    • Eliminating the culture of ownership and exclusive access to staff, and isolation between staff, by structuring teams more openly in physical, operational and financial terms;
    • Reframing the concept of power and leadership to include empowering others, social responsibility and accountability, with promotions and bonuses tied to group outcomes, broader client, industry and community contributions;
  • The building of cultures of trust and respect:
    • Reducing isolation and building safe and collaborative relationships across practice groups and outside the business to increase transparency, protective factors and the number of safe and independent lines of communication available to any person
    • Creating an employee-led culture across every part of the business, that undermines the traditional hierarchy and celebrates non-traditional corporate strengths including emotional intelligence, creativity, team and relationship building;
    • Reducing unconscious bias and discrimination with structured recruitment and performance interviews, structured and transparent salary ranges, and attention to diversity;
    • Encouraging and rewarding healthy productivity and work hours, proactive management of workload and stress, providing internal and external resources to support physical and mental health.

There is significant evidence to guide us on what sexual harassment looks like in our teams, who’s being targeted by it and the organisational factors that are enabling it. If we’re serious about reducing the endemic rates of harassment in the legal profession and providing a safe workplace, we have to act on that data and look at our organisational structures and culture.

More detailed evidence and commentary on this issue can be found in a four-part series of articles published on Linkedin.

Belinda Crosbie is Director at Morrissey Law + Advisory.

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