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Harassment policy: Leaders back LIV action on workplace misconduct

Harassment policy: Leaders back LIV action on workplace misconduct

By  Carolyn Ford

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The LIV is taking the lead on stamping out sexual harassment in Victoria’s legal ranks by providing policy tools and resources for practices. 

An adaptable one-page Sexual Harassment Model Policy, originated by the LIV, is now available to members. The LIV policy framework and template package can be downloaded from the LIV website and adapted for immediate use.

The LIV is taking the lead on the pervasive issue of sexual harassment in Victoria’s legal ranks. In consultation with key stakeholders in the profession, it is advocating for cultural change and providing tools and resources to achieve that. 

Following the #MeToo movement which ignited a global discussion about sexual harassment and gender inequality, a rash of data has shown sexual harassment occurs with frequency in the Victorian legal profession, where new data (see p18) shows practising women solicitors (54 per cent) outnumber practising male solicitors (46 per cent).

The 2021 Review of Sexual Harassment in Victorian Courts by Dr Helen Szoke found sexual harassment is an “open secret” in the Victorian legal profession.  

The Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner’s (VLSB+C) 2019 survey reported 36 per cent of respondents had personally experienced sexual harassment at some point in their legal career (based on legal and behavioural definitions). This was consistent with the results found by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) for all Australian workplaces.

In the Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report (2020) by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, the latest (2018) AHRC survey into workplace sexual harassment in Australia showed 33 per cent of respondents (39 per cent women, 26 per cent men) had experienced sexual harassment at work in the past five years. About 50 per cent of those said it had been going on for 12 months or longer and 52 per cent said it had happened at their workstation or where they worked.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were more likely to have experienced workplace sexual harassment than non-Indigenous people (53 per cent and 32 per cent respectively). 

Through the Respect@Work Inquiry, the AHRC heard gender inequality, as it relates to unequal distribution of power, resources and opportunity between men and women in society due to prevailing societal norms and structures, was the key power disparity that drives sexual harassment. 

Addressing gender inequality and the consequent sexual harassment is behind the LIV’s adoption of the Charter for the Advancement of Women in the Legal Profession and accompanying Guidelines, created by the Law Society of NSW in 2016. The Charter was revamped and relaunched in March 2021. Since the relaunch the number of signatories has jumped from 180 to more than 300 signatories.

The Law Society’s Charter aims to promote and support strategies to retain women from all backgrounds in the profession over the course of their careers, including women with disability, and encourage their progression into senior executive and management positions. It aims to achieve this by helping develop cultures which promote diversity and inclusion, prevent sexual harassment and bullying, and impact positively on all practitioners at work, resulting in better outcomes for solicitors and the community. The updated Charter includes new provisions to prompt signatories to establish procedurally fair and transparent sexual discrimination and harassment complaints processes, among other commitments. 

For firms and employers that don’t already have policies in place, the LIV encourages take-up of the Charter and the LIV Model Policy, the latter a project worked on since late 2018 when gender equality roundtable discussions began. The Model Policy was informed by members of the LIV Sexual Harassment Working Group, consisting of members of the LIV Diversity Committee, Young Lawyers and the LIV Workplace Relations Section. It was approved in July 2021 by LIV CEO Adam Awty.

Mr Awty says a legal profession rich in diversity at all levels, including senior leadership, is past its due date. “I work for a profession that struggles to keep women in it, let alone advance to leadership positions. We continue to hear of sexual harassment and discrimination in the profession and we keep talking about the need to do better. It’s time for all, but particularly men, to accept that regardless of gender, race, religion, disability or sexual orientation, a diverse profession is a richer profession. This issue is not for women to solve on their own. We must ensure women in the profession have a voice, and then listen. It’s time to challenge our personal, professional and organisational norms, to speak up and take action,” Mr Awty says.

“I urge all members to consider adopting the LIV Model Policy if they don’t already have one, and adapting it to their own firm. I also urge firms and employers to become signatories to the Charter for the Advancement of Women in the Legal Profession because without gender equality we won’t have workplaces free of sexual harassment. One drives the other.”

LIV president Tania Wolff believes the new LIV Model Policy and Charter combine to advance the profession. “If we are to maintain the trust and confidence of the community and remain relevant, the legal profession must reflect the community it serves. Key to that being achieved is for legal practices and workplaces around the state (and country) to be fair, inclusive and safe,” Ms Wolff says. “The Model Policy and Charter take us an important and significant step forward in the right direction. Our work continues though, and there is more to be done, to ensure that our workplaces attract, support and retain lawyers from all sectors of our diverse community, for the benefit of us all.” 

The LIV’s new Model Policy and adoption of the Charter has drawn praise and support from Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins as well as advocates and senior members of the Victorian legal profession. President of the Court of Appeal Justice Chris Maxwell authors Opinion (p20) and Chief Justice Anne Ferguson, Victorian Women Lawyers (VWL) president Vanessa Shambrook and Victorian Legal Services Board CEO and Commissioner Fiona McLeay comment opposite.

The LIV Sexual Harassment Model Policy and Charter for the Advancement of of Women in the Legal Profession are on the LIV website (www.liv.asn.au/SexualHarassmentResources).


Training

The LIV is offering training to deal with sexual harassment and workplace culture in the legal profession.

Created by the Queensland Law Society and licensed for use by the LIV, the workshop is delivered by trained facilitators in 60 minute (1 CPD point) or 90 minute (1.5 CPD point) formats. It identifies inappropriate conduct, the role of bystanders, the role of leaders, workplace culture, importance of policies, reporting and management of complaints, and support for affected individuals. Recorded scenes in the workplace using professional actors aid learning and understanding, challenging what individuals can do to reduce the harm to people, organisations and the profession as a result of sexual harassment.

The workshop, structured over six chapters incorporating four video resources, can be delivered by trained external facilitators or a firm’s own facilitators, who are required to do a “train the trainer” program and meet eligibility criteria.

It is envisaged it will be widened for specific groups of practitioners – Young Lawyers and principals, for example.

Workshop details are on the LIV website.

Resources

  • Victims of sexual misconduct in the workplace – if you have experienced or suspect you have experienced sexual harassment 
  • Bystanders – if you have witnessed or suspect you have witnessed someone being sexually harassed
  • Managers/supervisors – if you work in a position with managerial or supervisory duties – LIV Model Policy
  • Alleged perpetrators of sexual harassment 
  • Mental health and wellbeing – for information on where to get help
  • Charter for the Advancement of Women in the Profession, to sign – LIVCharter@liv.asn.au
  • Training.

LIV Sexual Harassment Model Policy

The LIV Model Policy calls for zero tolerance towards harassment and seeks to educate the profession and support vulnerable employees with avenues to address complaints. It promotes a culture of respect, professionalism and inclusiveness and it encourages all Victorian legal workplaces to develop and implement their own workplace policies to address sexual harassment workplace behaviour and commit to responding to complaints effectively.

A one-page Model Policy template is available. It is recommended it be appropriately displayed, eg, in the staff kitchen. 

Chief Justice Anne Ferguson 

“Sexual harassment is unlawful and wrong, and the harm it causes is profound. Workplaces around the world are reviewing structures and addressing attitudes and behaviours that have allowed sexual harassment to take place, often unchecked.

“Solicitors can lead by example by challenging, and changing, their workplace cultures. I am encouraged to see so many in the Victorian legal profession and peak bodies like the LIV taking positive action to help build legal workplaces that are safe, respectful and inclusive.

“I congratulate the LIV and the signatories to the Charter for the Advancement of Women in the Legal Profession for the leadership they have shown in relation to gender equality and I am confident this commitment will extend to every aspect of equality and diversity to build workplaces where everyone can thrive.”

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins

“In June 2020, Chief Justice Susan Kiefel publicly apologised on behalf of the High Court to six female associates who had complained of sexual harassment while working there. This statement from the highest court in this land prompted a long overdue reckoning on sexual harassment in the profession that is tasked with drafting and upholding our laws. It came just three months after the tabling in federal Parliament of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Sexual Harassment National Inquiry report Respect@Work and after sexual harassment prevalence surveys by the AHRC, VLSB+C and the International Bar Association confirmed that around one in three lawyers had experienced sexual harassment over the last five years.

“I am grateful that the legal profession across the country reacted to this reporting as a profession, rather than treating it as an isolated case. The Respect@Work report identified that some industries faced higher risks of sexual harassment and, in particular, industries like the law and medicine characterised by hierarchical power structures with patronage training systems. 

“Our industry is very inter-connected: students, academics, barristers, lawyers in firms, in-house counsel and judges cross paths over our daily work and across our careers. We depend on each other for work, fees, guidance and career opportunities. While it is changing slowly, men still hold disproportionate positions of power and there is still much to be done before we achieve gender equality in a profession that has attracted women in droves for decades.

“No matter where we work, we should be assured our workplace is safe and we should all know the rules of the game. Lawyers can too quickly rush to their keyboards to fix a problem, thinking that reviewing a policy or complaint procedure will somehow miraculously change cultures. At this critical time, the LIV has shown great leadership in encouraging the profession to unite, and in providing guidance and tools to advance women and eliminate sexual harassment. I encourage all legal workplaces to embrace the Charter for the Advancement of Women in the Legal Profession and Sexual Harassment Model Policy and focus their energy on bringing these resources to life in your workplaces. We all have a role to play to ensure our profession is safe and respectful.”

Victorian Legal Services Board CEO and Commissioner Fiona McLeay

“I commend the LIV for developing such a valuable resource that can be readily adopted by law practices across the state, particularly those small practices or sole practitioners who don’t have the means to develop policies of their own.

“We know from our 2019 report into Sexual Harassment in the Victorian Legal Sector that nearly half of legal workplaces do not have documented sexual harassment policies, and that specific workplace training and education to prevent sexual harassment is rare.

“Having policies like this in place – together with regular and effective training – will not only help drive down the incidence of harassment, but will also help build a culture in which this type of behaviour is not tolerated and where those who experience, witness and hear about it, speak up.

“While it is great to see that women now make up more than half of all practising solicitors in Victoria, we know there is still a lack of women in senior roles within the profession.

“This Charter, and its supporting guidelines, will hopefully help to build a culture among law practices that supports the recruitment and retention of women, and their progression to leadership roles.

“It is important the Charter and guidelines take an intersectional approach – recognising that for some women there are even greater challenges in the workplace, for example by reason of their socio-cultural background or because they are living with a disability.

“The guidelines offer practical steps that employers can implement, adapt or work towards depending on the size of the law firm.”

Victorian Women Lawyers president Vanessa Shambrook 

“VWL supports the adoption of the Sexual Harassment Model Policy and Charter for the Advancement of Women in the Legal Profession for all Victorian legal workplaces. We commend the LIV for taking up this initiative (especially as a recommendation of the recent review lead by Dr Helen Szoke). VWL also encourages those adopting the Charter to ensure that flexible work protocols are actually being put into practice, and not just spoken about.

“I support the objectives of the Model Policy, however emphasise the importance of a broader cultural change, and the adoption of training surrounding sexual harassment, including the gendered nature and causes of sexual harassment – without which, a policy alone will not prevent sexual harassment.

“Despite women now reflecting more than 50 per cent of the legal profession, the majority of people experiencing sexual harassment are women. Therefore, more weight must be placed on gender equality broadly, alongside the adoption of strong firm policies demonstrating a culture of no tolerance; only then will sexual harassment be truly prevented.

“It is up to us as leaders to send a clear message to all that sexual harassment of any person will not be tolerated, covered up or silenced. It is now time for us to create a safe workplace for female-identifying people.”


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