Two thirds of female lawyers have experienced sexual harassment at work, research finds

Nearly two thirds of female lawyers have experienced some form of sexual harassment while working in a law firm, according to new Legal Week research which highlights a gender divide when it comes to recognition of the scale of the problem.

Research carried out this week shows that the overwhelming majority of the 100 women responding to our survey have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work, with more than half (51%) experiencing it on more than one occasion.

The survey of more than 200 lawyers found that only a small percentage of the women experiencing harassment had reported it to their firms, with 82% staying silent.

Most of the incidents of harassment came at the hands of partners (58%), with inappropriate language cited by 43% of respondents as the form of harassment, inappropriate physical contact by 35% and overtly sexual behaviour by a further 9%. The remaining respondents opted not to specify.

One anonymous female respondent said: “When I was an associate I was groped by a partner before the firm Christmas party. I didn’t report it to the police, but now I wish I had.”

A male respondent, meanwhile, commented: “Female colleagues have described to me unwanted advances and touching, and possible repercussions if they objected.”

The research suggests that the situation has improved in recent years, with 59% of all 200 respondents stating that sexual harassment is much less prevalent within law firms now than when they started their careers.

As one female lawyer said: “Twenty years ago, a partner at the City firm at which I worked systematically sexually harassed junior women and generally behaved inappropriately under the influence of alcohol. I only reported this after I left, and the managing partner’s response showed he was aware. My current firm would never tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind.”

But while there may be acknowledgement that there is less sexual harassment now than in the past, the research highlights a gender divide in terms of the scale of the problem, and how seriously respondents think firms are taking the issue.

While 80% of all 200 respondents to the survey say firms now take sexual harassment either ‘very’ or ‘quite’ seriously, this figure rises to 90% for male respondents and falls to 65% for female respondents.

More than one in three women surveyed said law firms do not take the issue of sexual harassment seriously enough, or do not take it seriously at all, compared to just 10% of male respondents who are of the same belief.

Similarly, while 25% of female respondents believe their firms are still not doing enough to discourage sexual harassment, only 6% of male lawyers taking part in the survey feel the same way.

As one female respondent comments: “Sexual harassment in the workplace is an ongoing issue. It may not be as overt now as it was in the 1990s, because society has changed, but it is still there in the comments, the ‘jokes’, the observations.

“It is also still there physically, but it is subtle; hugs on a night out, being ‘complimented’ as opposed to outright groping – although that does still happen.”

Recognition of what qualifies as sexual harassment in the workplace also appears to differ between genders. While 65% of female respondents to the survey say they have witnessed sexual harassment of others at work, only 52% of men say they have witnessed such acts.

Though the findings are positive in that both male and female respondents agree that the problem is much less prevalent than it was in the past, they also highlight the challenge firms have to fully eradicate it, with more needing to be done to encourage women to come forward.

As another female respondent concludes: “There is a long way to go before law firms have earned the trust of junior members of staff to deal with sexual harassment.”

 

 

The response from law firms:

Susan Bright, UK and Africa managing partner, Hogan Lovells: “Sexual harassment is an issue we take extremely seriously at Hogan Lovells. We strongly encourage our people to speak up if they have any concerns and support them where they do. We believe that people are able to contribute most in a diverse and inclusive environment, where they feel comfortable and able to be themselves.”

Sarah Harper, global HR director, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer: “Our culture ensures that we have an environment that encourages anyone with concerns around harassment of any sort to speak up. We take these issues very seriously and, as a responsible business, support our people should they receive treatment that does not meet the very high standards that we expect and insist upon.”

  • If you have a story you are willing to share (in confidence) please get in touch by emailing Georgina Stanley at gstanley@alm.com.