“I jerked back, my face was red and I didn’t know what to do,” says Jane. “I said ‘Excuse me’ and left. And he was laughing.
“It was a good example of something that was really humiliating, really embarrassing, and took away a lot of my power as a young lawyer.»
Sexism and gender inequality are entrenched in Victoria’s legal and justice system, according to a comprehensive new report launched by Women’s Legal Service Victoria on Tuesday.
The service surveyed almost 300 people who work, or have worked, in the legal profession, including at private law firms, government authorities and community legal centres. More than 90 per cent of those who responded to the online questionnaire were women.
They described an enduring and powerful “boys club” culture in the legal profession, which in turn provides fertile ground for sexual harassment and bullying.
The Starts with Us report says legal and justice workplaces are often characterised by male “dominance and privilege”, where men prefer to work and socialise with other men.
It finds there is widespread discrimination against women of “child-bearing” age — whether they have children or not. Women often get less prestigious work due to the belief they might be “going off to have babies soon”.
And this discrimination occurs in workplaces that formally offer flexible working arrangements and promote themselves as “gender equitable”, says report co-author Lynda Memery from Women’s Legal Service Victoria.
Sexual harassment was strikingly common. This harassment included unwanted physical contact, comments on appearance — including how to dress — and sexual innuendo from male colleagues. “We were left with reams and reams of stories,” Ms Memery says.
One respondent said their male director had a sign on the wall behind his desk saying “Sexual harassment will not be tolerated in this office, it will be graded”.
The gender pay gap in the legal sector for full-time employees is 26 per cent, considerably higher than comparable sectors, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.
In February, Victorian Legal Services Commissioner Fiona McLeay announced she would launch a state-wide survey to establish the extent of sexual harassment experienced by Victorian lawyers.
About half of all female lawyers experience discrimination due to their gender, while one in four has experienced sexual harassment, according to a 2013 survey by the Law Council of Australia.
The partner in Jane’s law firm continued to sexually harass her; in one incident he made a crude joke while holding his genitals. But because she didn’t have a permanent contract Jane felt she could not report him. She still works there, but rarely sees him.
“The person who did this is a very insecure man with a lot of power who uses these sexual jokes to exert power over women who he perceives don’t have any,” she says.
The Starts with Us report will be presented on Tuesday to a forum of judiciary, barristers and executives from across the legal profession, with presenters that include Hon Justice Maxwell, the president of the Court of Appeal and Legal Services Commissioner Fiona McLeay.
*Not her real name
Miki Perkins is a senior journalist and Social Affairs Editor at The Age.