In early August, I attended the 2018 Presidents’ Summit of POLA (Presidents of Law Associations in Asia) held in Canberra on behalf of the Law Society. The statistics shared in one of the sessions were disheartening.
The Law Society of New Zealand conducted a comprehensive research on the legal profession environment and the results were recently released in May. The research, which was collated from information provided by over 3,500 lawyers (26% of the profession), shows that nearly one-third of female lawyers have been sexually harassed during their working life. More than half of all lawyers have been bullied at some time in their working life.
Separately, in 2017, the Legal and Policy Research Unit of the International Bar Association (IBA LPRU) undertook a project to obtain information regarding why women continue to experience barriers to the most senior positions in commercial law firms. Over 5,800 lawyers from jurisdictions in Asia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas responded. It was found that although women’s participation in the legal profession increased significantly from the 1980s, their representation as equity partners in law firms remains low, often less than 20%. Discrimination against, and sexual harassment of, women continues to be a significant problem. The findings of the survey include responses that suggest that some lawyers experience alarming levels of bullying and intimidation. These findings suggest that significant percentages of both women and men – women almost 50% and men 30% – have been subject to bullying and intimidating conduct during the course of their careers.
In Australia, the Law Council of Australia’s ‘National Report on Attrition and Re-engagement’ (2014), compiled from information provided by nearly 4,000 practitioners, identified that 24% of female respondents reported having been sexually harassed in their current workplace in the legal profession compared with 8% of male respondents.
In Canada, the Law Society of Ontario commissioned a survey to research the experiences of articling students as part of its licensing process review. The survey was aimed at lawyers who had completed their articles between 2014 and 2017, of which 1,471 responded. The results, released in January 2018, show that about 20% of articling students said they experienced unwelcome attention based on their gender, race, disability, sexual orientation or other personal characteristics.
Such kind of workplace environment is unacceptable in any profession, but for the legal profession, which is a profession for the pursuit of the rule of law and justice, these findings are even more alarming.
Although no study on the situation of the legal profession in Hong Kong has yet been conducted, the report on a study on sexual harassment in the service sector in Hong Kong conducted by the Equal Opportunities Commission in March 2018 notes that more than one in 10 women working in Hong Kong’s shops, bars and restaurants have been sexually harassed at work by either colleagues or customers.
Ensuring a safe and harassment free workplace environment for everyone is paramount. The Sex Discrimination Ordinance came into operation in 1996. However, the rights protected under the Ordinance are not as well publicized as in some of the overseas jurisdictions.
Reflecting on the experience of our counterparts overseas, it is perhaps time for us to gather more information on the workplace environment of our profession and evaluate how we have measured up towards ensuring a positive and safe workplace for practitioners.
To ensure that we stay vigilant about the issues, more will have to be done to raise awareness about best practices regarding sexual harassment and other offensive behaviour. First and foremost, it must be conveyed very clearly without any ambiguity what kind of conduct is prohibited in the workplace. There should be in place clear guidelines or policies on how to stop the prohibited conduct, how to establish safe places for people to talk about their encounters of such misconduct, how to set out a clear complaint procedure, how to address possible factors that may lead to a “culture of silence” and provide training to support, both victims and bystanders, in reporting misconduct.
As a profession that upholds the core values of justice, fairness and equality, let us all work to promote a safe and respectful workplace that provides the opportunity for employees to experience feelings of support, achievement and pride in their work.
MELISSA PANG, PRESIDENT