Male legal practitioners should engage on issues that affect female legal practitioners

September 26th, 2022

On 25 August 2022, the Cyrus R Vance Center for International Justice in collaboration with various organisations, held the second leg of the series of webinars under the theme, ‘Eliminating Sexual Harassment in the Workplace’. Speakers included legal practitioner, Soraya Hassim, who recently won several awards, including the Pinnacle Award for her contribution in the legal profession at the Women in Law Award. (See ‘Chief Justice Zondo commends WOZA for recognition of female legal practitioners’ 2022 (September) SA Lawyer 4.)

Ms Hassim said that the fact that the legal profession had to adopt sexual harassment policies, is an acknowledgement that sexual harassment is a real problem. She pointed out that there are many policies, however, the policies will never eliminate sexual harassment. She added that the best these policies can do is to discourage perpetrators by holding them responsible and answerable for their conduct. However, she said that the challenge is that victims must go to court. Ms Hassim pointed out that the Legal Practice Council’s (LPC’s) Sexual Harassment Policy is specific that anonymous complaints will not be taken.

Ms Hassim said that in the context of the environment, sexual harassment is a very intimate offense, and it is not easy for victims to come forward. She pointed out that the LPC and the Pretoria Society of Advocates hold that such complaints will be investigated and that there shall be no victimisation of the victim, nor of the alleged perpetrator. Ms Hassim, however, said that the environment female legal practitioners practice in whether in a large law firm or at the Bar where the advocates practice, there are various repercussions.

Ms Hassim explained the process of how senior council are paired with junior council. She said that at the Bar a senior council would pick their preferred female junior council, presumably with the intention or pretext of taking them under his wing. She explained that she used ‘he’ in her example as male legal practitioner are largely the perpetrators in such cases. She said that there is not a nice way of putting it, but it should be accepted that male counterparts in the legal profession do exploit female practitioners and junior practitioners.

Ms Hassim said that the colleagues who have bad motives have no intentions of empowering women, at least not in the way empowerment is understood. ‘We talk about skills transfer, strengthening the practice, she is going to get paid a fee. But that fee is going to come with a very high price,’ Ms Hassim said. She added that there have been allegations that female legal practitioners have been raped. She pointed out that the unfortunate thing is that these women have been afraid to come forward because coming forward means they must reveal their identity, they have to make statements against the perpetrator and the perpetrator will be allowed to respond and if there is a case for him to answer, then the society to which the legal practitioner belongs to will then decide on the disciplinary action.

Ms Hassim said that she has sat in on a sexual harassment disciplinary inquiry where the case was inappropriate conduct. She pointed that the perpetrator was suspended from practice for a period of time. She said that the more serious the case is, the less likely the victim would come forward. She said that there are many reasons why victims do not come forward, one being embarrassment that attaches to the incident. ‘We still live in a male dominated society; we practice in a male dominated environment and just like any women in society, legal practitioners are not treated differently. She would be the topic of discussion in the tearoom, she would be expose to victimisation in many forms. One of them would be a question of whether the fact that she did not invite the attention, whether she was harassed, or it was just sexual attention,’ Ms Hassim added.

Ms Hassim said that women are reluctant to come forward. She pointed out that where a woman is violated in the environment that she is working with a male colleague who is facilitating the constant flow of work, if the victim reports him, she is biting the hand that feeds her. She pointed out that the less serious forms of harassment, such as verbal, none verbal, non-physical are more likely to be reported. She suggested that women in the legal profession are the ones who should be encouraging other women to come forward. She added that unless the victim comes forward, policies cannot be implemented. She said that women should receive support in terms of counselling and empowerment. Ms Hassim also added that there should be dialogues where male legal practitioners are taught to be able to see women who are victims and to be able to get in touch with what women are dealing with. She said that male legal practitioners must be engaged on issues that female legal practitioners are going through.

Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, Director of Employment Law, Hedda Schensema, added that her organisation has a policy, procedures, training, and full awareness. She said it cannot be hidden in a full sense that one knows what their rights are and what is required of a person in terms of conduct or behave within the work environment. She added that having said that, despite the policies in place, there is probably not a week that does not go by where she is not dealing with a sexual harassment matter on behalf of clients. She pointed out that despite the client being in a place with the policy implemented and awareness among employees, there is still sexual harassment and victimisation. She said companies must continue awareness on these matters.

Ms Schensema added that sometimes there is a lack of awareness in relation to what is considered appropriate behaviour. ‘What I might deem appropriate years ago, is not deemed appropriate anymore, because the juniors are not prepared to accept that kind of behaviour,’ Ms Schensema said. She pointed out that continuous training and reminders to all employees is needed. She said that there is a positive obligation that employers cannot simply just ignore the problem, they need to deal with such problems and if they do not, they will face penalties in terms of the Employment Equity Act 55 of 1998. Ms Schensema said that employers have the obligation to make sure that employees know their rights and obligations in relation to the Code of Good Practice on the Prevention of Elimination of Harassment in the Workplace and what they can do when subjected to some form of harassment.

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

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