Sexual Harassment Rife Within the Legal Profession


By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

The legal profession is reeling from media reports that it’s an industry where sexual harassment thrives and very little is done about it.

The claims, made on the ABC’s 7.30 Programme, are backed up by research conducted by the Law Council of Australia which found that almost one in four female lawyers say they have been sexually harassed – had to deal with unwanted advances, been objectified and exposed to inappropriate behaviour.

One in ten men say they have been subjected to harassment.

Sexual harassment lawyer Michael Harmer says the legal profession is one of the worst offenders, largely because it is still a male dominated industry. He says the way it is structured, with males overwhelmingly responsible for the advancement of subordinates, sets the scene for abuses of power.

Cultural problem

Mr Harmer believes there’s a cultural problem within the profession, which often normalises predatory behaviour. This is illustrated by the story of Melissa, a 19-year old junior lawyer, who a more senior lawyer attempted to hold and kiss as they were dancing at an after-work gathering.

When Melissa complained to colleagues, some of whom had witnessed the incident, they told her she should not have been dancing with a married man in the first place.

Dirty old barristers

According to a recent NSW Bar Practising Certificate Survey, Barristers are not immune to harassment. Half of all female barristers surveyed say they have experienced harassment, but none have actually made a formal complaint.

And without creating an environment which encourages formal complaints, it is difficult to tackle the problem.

Lawyer Jenna Vardi, who specialises in employment law and sexual harassment cases, believes sexual harassment in the legal profession is widely under-reported.

Ms Vardi says that as a young lawyer, she had her own experience during a seasonal clerkship at a large firm, when she overheard some of the male lawyers talking about the ‘fresh meat’ coming through, and who might be easy prey at a Christmas party.

She says sexual harassment is not normally a one-off event, and while younger staff will typically brush-off initial incidents, like a lewd remark or someone brushing up against them in the office, she warns that this can give the perpetrator more confidence and allow their behaviour to escalate.

 Addressing the problem

Potential solutions to the problem include promoting more women to senior legal positions, the implementation of harassment policies and reporting procedures, including making it clear there will be zero tolerance of anyone who engages in or covers up incidents.

And this should occur as a matter of urgency, given that the majority of newly admitted lawyers in NSW are women, making up 63% of all law graduates.

Sexual Harassment and the law

Sexual harassment is covered by both state and federal laws.

There are generally two requirements for sexual harassment to be established:

  • It must be unwelcome sexual behaviour; and
  • It must reasonable that the victim would feel offended, humiliated or intimidated by the behaviour.

The Australian Human Rights Commission outlines exactly what constitutes sexual harassment and discrimination, how to identify it, as well as what every employee should expect from an employer in terms of preventative measures, and also how to make a complaint about sexual harassment in the workplace.

It is also important to remember that victimisation can be against the law, and can even amount to a criminal offence such as indecent assault or an act of indecency if there is inappropriate contact or conduct of a sexual nature.


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