#AceNewsReport – Apr.19: Many women and some men told their stories of the ‘open secret’ of sexual harassment,” said Helen Szoke, who led the review.
Sexual harassment an ‘open secret’ in Victoria’s legal profession, according to a review that was commissioned in the wake of sexual harassment allegations made against now-retired High Court judge Dyson Heydon and initiated by former Victorian attorney-general Jill Hennessy and Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Ferguson.
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The review made 20 recommendations including:
- Implement a sexual harassment policy that covers all staff and contractors
- Change the appointment process for judicial officers to require that they are of good character
- Adopt victim-survivor centred responses to gender-related misconduct
- Develop an awareness-raising campaign for the courts, VCAT and the wider legal profession
- Provide targeted sexual harassment training to staff
- Conduct an annual survey to track progress on sexual harassment incidents
- To give the Judicial Commission more power to investigate allegations
- To establish a formal internal complaint mechanism that can be anonymous
“Women also spoke of the everyday sexism and a culture that often sees women and junior staff ‘less than’.
“Sexually suggestive comments or jokes, intrusive questions about their private life and unwelcome comments on their physical appearance were accepted as part of the job.”
The report referred to a 2019 survey of legal professionals that found almost two-thirds of women had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
Dr Szoke said the review found that sexual harassment was frequently reported as being perpetrated and experienced by barristers and that there were significant obstacles preventing victim-survivors from reporting sexual harassment in the courts.
“The review was told that sexual harassment and the silence surrounding these behaviours is perpetuated by the power inequalities in the court setting and a legal profession requiring patronage and a network to progress,” she said.
Reporting harassment is ‘career suicide’
In her first year at the bar, Jennifer Batrouney was kissed by a male colleague at an after-work function.
She worked with him for the next 25 years.
Her experience is “ancient history now” but she is both sad and enraged that that type of sexual harassment is so widespread.
“It’s career suicide to report sexual harassment at the bar and I suspect in the legal profession generally,” she said.
“So women just put up with it.”
Ms Batrouney, the convenor of the Women Barristers Association, said the legal profession was so reliant on networking and word of mouth that a good reputation is everything.
And it is the men who have all the power.
“The junior women are just terrified to be seen to, in any way, upset the power holder,” she said.
“I think the profession needs to understand — and the wider society needs to understand — and it’s the perpetrator’s shame, not the victim’s shame. “
Min’s experience with ‘flirt’
The review found there were serious instances of sexual harassment with significant impacts on its victim-survivors.
Dozens of people shared their experience, mostly anonymously, with a selection published in the report.
“A judicial officer that I’d seen asking my colleague out for lunch came up to my desk and started licking his lips and said to me, ‘Oh, have they told you how much of a flirt I am’,” said Min, who did not want her surname used.
“I’d never really experienced anything like that before, but I spoke with a senior judicial officer about it, who basically said, ‘Look, I understand this has happened. Do you want me to take it further?'”
“And because I was very new to the job at the court at the time, even actually going to the senior judicial officer and reporting it was quite stressful.
“I thought, ‘No, I don’t want to take it further
“Unfortunately, I continued to experience similar incidents at the court, often from judicial officers — sexual innuendo or being called ‘gorgeous’.”
The review was told the court hierarchy and resulting power imbalance existed in all realms of the professional working life of court staff.
“I can’t think of any other power imbalance that is that uneven,” said one participant in the review.
“Any other industry you work in, they … have some sort of governing body — for example, in the law firms, if it got bad enough, HR could get involved and something could happen.
“There is literally nothing you can do in the courts.”
Zero tolerance for sexual harassment
Chief Justice Ferguson said the courts and VCAT would not tolerate any form of wrongful conduct.
“There will be zero tolerance for sexual harassment,” she said.
“I want to acknowledge the harm that has occurred in our workplaces – the Courts and VCAT.
“It is clear that our responses to date have not been good enough and we must – and we will – do more.”
Chief Justice Ferguson said the courts and VCAT supported all of the recommendations and work had already started to make the changes.
Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes said the report was shocking.
“Probably the most chilling component of it is those that are exposed to sexual harassment … find it impacts their soul and if they do report it they’re concerned it will impact their career,” Ms Symes said.
“We will not stand for this behaviour anymore and this is our opportunity to ensure that people are protected in their workplaces.”
Ms Symes said they would implement all four of the recommendations relating to the government.
#AceNewsDesk report ……….Published: Apr.19: 2021:
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