We speak to the founders of advocacy group Women Lawyers on Guard (WLG) about their plan to enlist men to help address sexual harassment in legal
National lawyers’ organization Women Lawyers on Guard (WLG) recently conducted a nationwide study on sexual harassment within the legal professsion, Still Broken: Sexual Harrassment and Misconduct in the Legal Profession, that unfortunately underscored how sexual harassment is still a too-common occurrence in the legal profession.
Cory Amron and Corrine Propas Parver, co-founders of WLG, say they felt compelled to prove whether or not sexual harassment was still an issue because the legal profession “bases any change on needs-based evidence.” Indeed, too many in the industry, especially older lawyers, were not convinced that sexual harassment was still a problem, Parver says. “Our study showed that harassment is still a huge problem, particularly in the advancement of women in the legal profession, and that causes many to stall in their career as they face barriers to work productivity and mental well-being,” she explains.
Women Lawyers on Guard surveyed individuals that were the targets of harassers or in-the-room observers to these incidents. The survey found that:
- 86% of harassment incidents are not reported, and barriers to reporting are identical to 30 years ago;
- of those reported incidents (roughly 14%), half of the harassers received no negative consequences for their behavior; and
- in another 20% of incidents reported, the person harassed had no idea what consequences were given to their harasser, having received no information from their employer.
Overall, this study reveals that there are challenges of transparency and accountability within the cultures of legal employers. “If you have a situation where you bring all of your courage to bear and there are no consequences, this confirms your fear that your employer will not take it seriously,” says Amron.
Involving men in the solution
WLG’s next initiative will involve small, professionally facilitated conversations with male lawyers, with two main objectives: i) to listen and possibly hear better ways to address sexual harassment; and ii) to inspire active male allies to help eradicate sexual harassment. “We need to listen to men who might have received conflicting societal or household messages, whether intended or not, about what is acceptable behavior,” Amron says, adding that these opposing messages “don’t enable them to deal with harassments in a way that nips it in the bud.”
WLG hopes that men will participate in these conversations because, as Parver explains, some men had previous experience as bystanders in incidents of harassment and didn’t know what to do; or they might feel guilty that they were part of cultures that did not take action; or they may be unaware that people are still being sexually harassed and wish to help.
Indeed, both Parver and Amron intuitively know that a core part of the problem is that male-dominated power dynamics at legal employers fuels harassment. At the same time, they also recognize that sexual harassment doesn’t spring up full-blown when people enter law school. “It’s a problem that is ubiquitous in our society,” Amron states. “The law as a profession is still predominantly male at the upper levels, even as half the graduating classes are women. Because harassment is mostly a power play, the power dynamic manifests itself pretty strongly in male-dominated professions and workplaces.”
The second goal that Amron and Parver hope to meet in these conversations with men is to encourage active male allies. By encouraging theses allies, WLG hopes to further encourage legal employers to institute better ways to address these problems, and cut off the harassment before it escalates, establish better reporting mechanisms, and realize that treating harassment as “none of my business” perpetuates harassment.
Other actions that legal employers can take include:
Expanding on constructive models — There is a need for conversations and positive role modeling. “Berating someone by telling them all the negative things that they can’t do because it would be a violation of the law leading to employer liability” doesn’t help people visualize what they could be doing to curb harassment.
Acting through existing institutions — Parver and Amron also advocate an increased focus on personal responsibility and accountability, through an appropriate spectrum of interventions or consequences. Egregious offenders should not be able to just jump to another employer without consequence, for example; and in appropriate situations, disciplinary complaints, investigations, and hearings should be a tool for those sexually harassed and abused. Also, ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) governs acts of harassment and discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity and should be implemented in more states.
Evolving cultures to address reporting barriers — According to Parver and Amron, there needs to be some serious changes in the culture of legal employers to create an environment where reporting of harassments is encouraged and appreciated without the fear of professional consequence or retribution. Also, there should be assurances made to the individual targeted in the harassment — and any reporting bystander — that i) a full investigation will be conducted; and ii) if action is taken, those that reported the incident will be told what the investigation finds and the actions taken to remediate the behavior of the harasser.
Incentives to create cultures of transparency and accountability — Another action that Amron and Parver think would go a long way is to have legal employers reward and recognize managers and supervisors who actively execute a culture of transparency and accountability. “If a person is a practice group or division head, rewarding that person for keeping diverse people employed and working productively together will result in much less sexual harassment,” says Amron.