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Sexual Harassment and Misconduct in the Legal Profession: An Interview with Women Lawyers on Guard
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Sexual Harassment and Misconduct in the Legal Profession: An Interview with Women Lawyers on Guard

As lawyers, we are privileged to uphold and follow all aspects of the law. However, would you be surprised if I said that sexual misconduct and harassment are still rampant in the legal profession? JURIST was privileged to interview Cory Amron (President) and Corrine Parver (Vice President) of Women Lawyers on Guard (WLG) to dive deeper into this very question.

“I was raped by a board member/customer [of a non-profit], who was allowed to voluntarily resign from the board, but [he] faced no other consequences and I am expected to still deal with him” -Anonymous respondent

In 2020, the legal profession, the very system that should be the first to fight against this behavior, is still broken. Participants were surveyed in a one-of-its-kind 2020 National Study by WLG and Dr. Arin Reeves of Nextions. This survey revealed “significant, current evidence of sexual misconduct and harassment” in the legal environment. In a 68 page report also summarized in a 16-page executive summary, WLG brings to full light just how severe the problem is within the legal profession.

Individuals in all positions and at all levels of the legal profession are currently experiencing a broad spectrum of sexual misconduct and harassing behaviors. These behaviors cause significant, deleterious injury to the individuals being harassed, their organizations, and the entire legal profession. They inhibit productive advancement, retention, and satisfaction in the profession and cause untold economic and psychological damage.

“People think that lawyers know the law and so they should be bound by the law, therefore they shouldn’t be doing things that transgress the law. Sexual harassment is much more about power than it is about sex,” says Cory, pointing to the fact that the high rate of sexual harassment within the legal field is not a field-specific problem.

“I thought it was the price for being a successful female in a male-dominated profession.” – Survey respondent

Because sexual harassment tends to happen in the setting of uneven power dynamics, and the legal field remains male-dominated, could placing more women in positions of power help? While having more women in power is one of many needed improvements in order to achieve gender equality, Cory and Corrine pointed out that the picture is far more complex. They place as much emphasis on changing and improving the overall workplace culture.

In regards to the gender gap, currently only 19.5% equity partners and 30.5% of non-equity partners in law firms are women. Although there are more women in positions of power than there were 30 years ago, the gap is closing too slowly. Cory said this is happening “at a snail’s pace. I was shocked to see the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) survey that projected at the trajectory we’re currently at, it will take 160 years to reach gender equality and that’s just law professionals.”

So instead of putting our finger on the “power pulse” as Cory phrased it, she challenges us to ask “what is the culture of this place?” Whether it’s a firm, association, a non-profit, etc. Cory said:

So, I think we need to start with the idea that we need to change cultures. [W]hether that happens by having more women in power positions in the workforce or by having women and men at equal levels in the hierarchy; by having women on important committees, and having women moving up faster in the ladder. Whatever sets the culture in a more balanced fashion is the way to go.

WLG and Nextions eye-opening survey clearly highlights ways in which the culture needs to change. Page 2 of the Executive Summary and page 4 of the Full Report are particularly important. When participants were asked how often harassment occurred in their employment setting and how much it was a part of their culture the results were only subtly different from 30 years ago. 30 years ago, 51% said it was commonly or often present, 38% of the respondents said sexual harassment was somewhat common, and only 10% said it was rare. According to the survey in 2019, 25% said often, 48% said somewhat, and 27% said rarely when asked how often sexual misconduct occurred at their place of work. This means that over the last 30 years, there has been only a 17% decrease in incidents experienced in negative workplace cultures. Corrine Parver, Vice President at WLG said during the interview:

30 years later there has been some change for the better. If  you look at the people getting away with [sexual harassment and misconduct] back then, 89% of the respondents, reported that their experiences occurred in cultures that condoned sexual harassment “somewhat” or “often.” Today it’s just 73%. Is that good? No, it’s just less bad.

The study found that the barriers women face when reporting sexual harassment at the workplace are also nearly the same as 30 years ago. As the Full Report shows on page 7 and the Executive Summary shows on page 3, common reasons are given for why they aren’t reporting. Things such as employer inaction, fear of losing their jobs, negative impacts on their income or promotion opportunities, not even knowing how to report the sexual transgression, being scared for their physical safety, and other various reporting barriers were common reasons given for not reporting according to this study.

The most common reason for not reporting was the perception that the employer wouldn’t believe them or do anything. Other common reasons for not reporting are: the person the victim needs to report to is the abuser themselves, the consequences are unclear to the victim/observers, and the entire system of reporting is slow and unreliable. “In many cases, women ended up being in worse positions for having reported sexual harassment” added Corrine.

Unfortunately, 86% of respondents did not report a sexual harassment incident. Of the respondents who did report sexual harassment, only 40% felt supported, 41% said they not only felt unsupported, but some were retaliated against, some were forced to “mediate” with the harasser, for some, the harassment became worse.

Moving forward, one of the most vital things that employers can do is to enable safe and reliable reporting. Cory and Corrine said this needs to be done, regardless of if it is done “through a culture change or modeling [proper] behavior, by getting independent investigators if internal investigations are biased or ineffectual.” Internal investigations can be useful if they are done swiftly, without bias, and with appropriate consequences, according to the WLG team. To properly address sexual harassment situations in our work environments the main keys are to not “drag feet” and to have transparency of consequences.

This survey and WLG clearly demonstrated that a lack of transparency causes a pitfall for reporting due to not knowing what actually happens to the harasser. Corrine Parver stated:

How discouraging it must be for victims to work in a place that enables harassers to face few to no adverse consequences after being reported for sexual harassment.

Lack of transparency and inaction also has a ripple effect; other employees will become discouraged working in a place that has a history of doing nothing to abusers or that perception due to inadequate transparency. Swift and transparent responses can help show future abusers and victims that they work in a culture that does not tolerate sexual harassment or misconduct.  Sweeping reports under the rug is counterintuitive to creating a healthy culture.

Cory added that “[w]e’re not advocating to fire for every harassing behavior, but every harassing behavior certainly deserves some sort of consequence.” Nonetheless, we maintain a culture in our profession that has a 50% rate of nothing happening to abusers, and 20% of victims never even hear what happened to the abuser. For extra emphasis, WLG is not saying abusers should be railroaded but that there need to be consequences on a spectrum, matching the offense. It “doesn’t have to be the death penalty but appropriate accountability” is vital to improving this plague, according to the WLG team.

Not only does this help employees know their employer takes sexual harassment seriously, but it also has a positive impact on bystander reporting rates. As detailed in the survey report, many occurrences of sexual harassment happen in group settings. One survey respondent’s experience is an example of this: A judge put his hands under my suit jacket to cop a feel . . . in his chambers.” This occurred with others in the room but as WLG discovered, bystanders are also victim to the various intimidations and sociological reasons for not reporting.

Moving forward, culture creation, safe reporting opportunities, transparency, and having consequences that create accountability are key. Corrine mentioned that two things they wish to get rid of are “mandatory forced arbitration and non-disclosures agreements (NDAs) that prohibit people to come forward or if they do, act to their detriment”.

Next steps that offer hope for our profession are being made by WLG. One is an upcoming initiative that looks to have conversations with men about practicing law in the #MeToo era. Another is the creation of a workplace reporting software that enables anonymous, safe reporting.

WLG’s goal for its “Conversations” initiative “isn’t to train people or to rebuke or create an echo chamber.” What they’re really trying to do is to have a frank conversation and use these discussions to spur the profession to take up new, maybe some entirely unthought of ideas for ways to improve this affliction. “It’s essential, we (the women in the legal profession) have male allies who are interested, willing, and able to move the needle to change this culture. It’s not the plan to have women come in and take over every single workplace, but to enable healthy relationships in the workplace that ultimately lead to productive and safe workplaces” for all.

 

Matthew Fischer is a JURIST Staff Writer and Associate Editor currently in his second year of law school at Vermont Law.

 

Suggested citation: Matthew Fischer, Sexual Harassment and Misconduct in the Legal Profession: An Interview with Women Lawyers on Guard, JURIST – Student Commentary, July 28, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/07/matthew-fischer-sexual harassment-legal-profession/.


This article was prepared for publication by Gabrielle Wast. Please direct any questions or comments to her at commentary@jurist.org


Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.