Sexual Harassment Spotlight: Law Firms

The revelations keep coming about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in every type of organization and profession. Not much has changed yet, which is why we have to keep the spotlight focused on revealing and stopping this behavior everywhere. Yvonne Abraham of the Boston Globe reports on a new study of sexual harassment in law firms. The new study, conducted by Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, for the Massachusetts Women’s Bar Association (MWBA), surveyed 1,200 employees in Massachusetts law firms. Abraham notes that these employees described harassment and bullying experienced between 2010 and 2018—not ancient history—that they felt powerless to prevent. She cites Rikleen as explaining, “It is a younger person’s problem. Someone more vulnerable to power imbalances is less likely to speak up.” In addition, when employees see the complaints of other colleagues go unheeded, they do not feel empowered to speak out. Survey participants shared some of their experiences in law firms:

  • Unwanted hugging
  • Back-rubbing
  • Groping
  • Kissing
  • Lewd comments
  • Propositions by men in positions of power
  • Comments on women’s clothing or anatomy
  • Brushing by women too closely
  • Men watching porn on computers
  • Attorneys sending or sharing pornographic emails or images
  • Demeaning comments on race, religion, sexual orientation, or pregnancy
  • Powerful partners, including some women, yelling at and humiliating colleagues, including throwing files and other objects
The MWBA report notes that the primary challenge for law firms is, according to Abrahams, “the obscene gender imbalances in the upper ranks.” Abrahams notes that “Equal numbers of women and men have been graduating from law schools for more than a decade. Yet women make up just 19 percent of equity partners, and 30 percent of non-equity partners, at firms nationally.” In addition to creating more gender balance in the upper levels of management, firms need to make a real commitment to creating safe and respectful workplace cultures. Having a sexual harassment policy is meaningless if managers do not hold staff and partners accountable for their behavior. So much work still needs to be done.   Photo courtesy of Navaneeth KN (CC BY-ND 2.0)]]>

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