Just what is sexual harassment anyway?

Victoria Lewis




I wish firms were willing to go further than the cliched statement “We are committed to diversity and equality and will not tolerate any type of behaviour etc etc“. Some types of behaviour call for firm and unreserved condemnation, not just lukewarm corporate-speak.

According to "The Lawyer" today, 42% of people working in law firms know what it is, indeed, they say they have been subjected to it and over half of them said it took place in the last year.  The legal industry is the latest in the Hollywood, financial services, tech industry revelations, and I'm sure it won't be the last.

The survey result sadly does not surprise me - I'm an employment lawyer and grew up in a private practice environment so I've seen and dealt with some stuff over the years. But it's the last 13 years of standing in training rooms, often in law firms, which has really added to my exposure of, and my understanding of, the battle weary scars people - mostly women - carry around with them. 

I promise you this isn't going to be a rant but ...... what the survey demonstrates is that once again what is perhaps the most surprising factor of the post Weinstein revelations is just how wide spread the behaviour is and that individuals generally seem to accept that's the way it is and has always been ("Why the fuss now?" type thing) So, why is sexual harassment so prolific and what is it?

That's the tricky bit. I can tell you that sexual harassment is defined as "unwanted conduct of a sexual nature having the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment".  The complexity tends to emerge around "of a sexual nature".  There's a tonne of grey there. The survey revealed that the most common form of activity was "unwanted suggestive comments' with over 81% of those who said they had been harassed being subjected to this treatment. There was no detail on what "suggestive" meant.

The survey as with a great deal of other commentary I have read recently considered whether the #MeToo movement and recent revelations such at The President's Club had left people (men?) thinking things had moved too far. The survey found men and women over 50 feel it has gone too far, compared to women and men in their thirties and under. I have certainly noticed an increase in my sessions on workplace behaviour - a little more push back than before - "it's PC gone mad", "what are we allowed to say now" or more commonly "I'm too afraid to say anything at all now ...". Really? Not sure that's entirely the case but I do appreciate the confusion and the concern as to where the line is now.

I don't think the line has shifted though. I don't think that there is a significant increase in sexual harassment in the last few years either. The power dynamics that exist in most workplaces, the lack of approachability whether that be a partner in a professional services firm or a leader on a management board of a tech company has surely existed for some time. But the level of awareness has increased amongst women and men. Not where the line is, but that people have different lines and that they may move up and down those lines depending on a variety of factors.  It is simply not helpful to talk about a line - it's about impact and people see impact differently. 

It is surely not a surprise to anyone that the most common dynamic revealed in the law firm survey is of partners harassing associates and then partners harassing trainees or vacation students (people they presumably want to work there one day). Power and influence. If a partner in a law firm refers to my blouse being a soft material, calls me by a nickname they have heard others use, stands a little too close to me, or asks me more than (... how many? ).... 3 times? ... where I live, would it feel  different to a peer saying the same things? For many of us, it would.  For some, maybe not. What's the real issue here? If that partner is not told that it made someone feel uncomfortable, they'll do it again and perhaps next time it'll be way over "the line".  But it's not so simple telling a partner or a leader is it? I was struck by the following comment by one of the participants in the survey :

“There are some in senior positions that have outwardly diminished the efforts of things like the #MeToo movement. They have made comments like ‘nobody will be able to flirt anymore’ and ‘without men approaching women in bars nobody would ever get together’ which I feel misses the point entirely. These kinds of comments do not make me confident that if I approached them with an actual problem that it would be taken seriously, whether that is accurate or not.”

Female, 20-30, associate

If law firms or any other organisation wants to get serious about this then they need to address the issue of why people don't speak up and how they can help people to do so. Maybe the answer is confidential helplines, maybe it is Dignity at Work champions, but first and foremost leaders need to remember they are being observed ALL the time, the things they say and do matter and get logged in the brains of those they influence. And it'll affect their approachability. So if you want these statisitics to go down start to focus on promoting  a truly supportive environment rather that wondering if you can comment on someone's blouse!