27 September 2023

Changing culture: How to curb harassment in the legal sector

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Madeline Hislop* says an intersectional approach is needed to improve culture of harassment and discrimination in legal and justice sector.

Discrimination, bullying, and harassment are rife in the legal and justice professions in Victoria, according to a new report that calls for meaningful action to address intersectional gender equality.

The Women’s Legal Service Victoria has launched its Gender and Intersectional Inequality report, drawing on a survey of over 300 legal and justice professionals.

A massive 57 per cent of respondents to the survey noted they had observed discriminatory attitudes and cultures in their workplace, while 44 per cent said their experiences at work had caused them to consider leaving the sector.

The report found that the legal and justice sector in Victoria is dominated by a culture that advantages white, able-bodied, class privileged, cisgendered and heterosexual people.

Meanwhile, many workplaces in the sector have a culture where “everyday” sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia are the norm, while inadequate support is provided for employees with disabilities and mental illness.

The report also found that lack of career opportunities and negative career impacts due to discrimination lead to fatigue and feelings of poor self-worth for many in the sector.

“The legal sector is still based on archaic patriarchal structures. It’s so hard to unpack all the subtle discrimination that happens day to day,” one research participant said.

“I feel and see the micro & macro aggressions of classism, racism, ableism in my workplace every day, and my workplace is a ‘social justice’ organisation.

Change really has to be made from the top down, and from the bottom up.”

Another participant said: “Being the subject of jokes because I am a woman and Chinese – assumptions about the gender roles I take on at home etc.”

“I have a weird gait because of my disability. My boss followed me down the corridor in front of everyone imitating how I walked and laughing,” another said.

“I have noticed a general attitude of people looking down on others if they have accents, especially brown people with accents as opposed to European for example.

There is a general view that people of south Asian appearance, for example, who have accents are not as smart as others,” another said.

Of the 325 participants in the survey, 93 per cent were women, 5 per cent identified as trans, non-binary or gender diverse, and 2 per cent were men.

In terms of discrimination, 25 per cent of those surveyed said they had experienced discrimination due to their ethnicity, race or religion, 22 per cent said they had experienced discrimination based on a disability or mental illness, while 11 per cent said they had experienced it on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Women’s Legal Director of Education and Engagemtn, Eila Pourasgheri said the report builds on the 2019 Starts With Us discussion paper.

“It tells us clearly that a one size fits all approach to gender inequality won’t work,” Pourasgheri said.

Research manager, Dr Monica Campo said legal and justice organisations have a responsibility to make workplaces safe.

“Over half of the research participants observed discrimination in their workplaces and almost half reported considering leaving the sector,” Dr Campo said.

“As a workforce of 32,000 people, our sector can make a significant contribution to Victoria-wide efforts to address sexism and gender inequality as the underlying drivers of violence against women.”

“If we are serious about ending violence against women, workplaces are a key setting for change and the legal sector has an important role to play.”

The report was launched by Victoria’s Minister for Women, Gabrielle Williams, who said: “We know that bad attitudes towards women lead to bad outcomes for women, and that sexism is not just in poor taste, it’s dangerous.

“Only by committing to individual and collective action can we make meaningful change.”

Seven recommendations have been suggested in the report, developed in consultation with representatives from the legal and justice sector.

They aim to “guide” thinking and action through an intersectional lens, and acknowledge that a one size fits all approach will not deliver improvements.

*Madeline Hislop is a journalist & editor of The Sporty Wrap, a weekly newsletter published by Women’s Agenda.

This article first appeared at womensagenda.com.au

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