The legal profession needs a helpline where sexual harassment can be reported

August 26th, 2019
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Legal practitioners attended a women’s talk session on sexual harassment in the legal profession that was hosted by the National Association of Democratic Lawyers, on 3 August in Johannesburg.

By Kgomotso Ramotsho

The National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL) held a women’s talk session under the theme ‘#TIMESUP – Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession: It’s Time for Change,’ on 3 August in Johannesburg. Legal practitioners from respective organisations in the legal profession gathered to create a conversational, open and safe environment to share experiences anonymously, which would help to contribute to a safe and violence free legal profession.

The women’s talk session comes after a recent study was conducted on bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession by the International Bar Association and a market research company Acritas, which revealed that –

  • one in three women and one in 14 men have been sexually harassed;
  • in 57% of bullying cases, the incidents were not reported, with the figure rising to 75% for episodes of sexual harassment not being reported;
  • workplaces are not doing enough to prevent or adequately respond to misconduct, with policies regarding bullying and sexual harassment present in 53% of workplaces; and
  • just one in five workplaces have conducted training session in order to recognise problems in these areas.

Representatives from NADEL, the Black Lawyers Association (BLA), the South African Women Lawyers Association (SAWLA), the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA), Advocates for Transformation, the Pan African Bar Association of South Africa (PABASA) and the General Council of the Bar (GCB) were each given a chance to speak about the challenges and experiences, which they know of, with regard to sexual harassment in the legal profession. It was revealed that most female legal practitioners, including female candidate legal practitioners suffer sexual harassment at the hands of their male principals, but also suffer from being bullied by some of their female principals.

A comment from the floor was made regarding the ongoing trend of ‘carpet interviews’, where a young female legal practitioner is subjected to sleeping with their male senior to get a job. Another delegate added that it is tough for female legal practitioners to get a job even when they are qualified. According to the delegates women are hired for the way they look. It was also revealed that it is not only senior male legal practitioners who sexually harass young female candidate legal practitioners, but also senior female legal practitioners who sexually harass young male candidate legal practitioners.

Another challenge that was revealed at the session was that senior female legal practitioners do not employ female candidate legal practitioners. They feel intimidated by the younger females and do not want to work with other female legal practitioners because they want to obtain high positions in the legal profession. All the guests who participated in the session were asked to come up with resolutions that will pave a way forward to fighting and dealing with issues of sexual harassment and bullying in the legal profession.

Legal practitioners from the various organisations who attended the session stood together as one and said that they recognise that sexual harassment is rampant in the legal profession, particularly where there is an imbalance in power relations, patriarchy and toxic misogyny. They added that they also recognise that there is a need to shift power relationships and that a zero-tolerance approach should be taken towards sexual harassment in the profession. In order to ensure that a Task Team can be created, secretary generals of the constituent organisations will have to investigate and make proposals on the following:

  • A helpline for victims of sexual harassment must be created.
  • A comprehensive policy and guidelines for the entire profession (where individual policies do not exist) must be developed and it should be mandatory for all organisations in the legal profession to adopt the policy. (This includes law firms, advocate groups and organisations, such as, NADEL, the BLA, the LSSA, SAWLA, the GCB, PABASA and Advocates for Transformation.)
  • A mechanism must be put in place to rebuild a culture of zero tolerance in the legal profession where there are consequences for sexual harassment.
  • An education awareness campaign aimed at educating everyone in the legal profession to understand what sexual harassment is, so that there cannot be denial, or a lack of responsibility among the profession when sexual harassment takes place.

 

Kgomotso Ramotsho Cert Journ (Boston) Cert Photography (Vega) is the news reporter at De Rebus.