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Report Harassment and Bullying? Hmm...

Vivia Chen

October 12, 2018


Maybe it's too early to ask, but I'll put it out there anyway: Are women more or less likely to report harassment or bullying in the workplace in the aftermath of the Brett Kavanaugh hearing? 

My totally unscientific poll indicates that women are split. On one hand, there's the "hell, yeah, you betcha I'm gonna report the rat!" reaction. But there's also this: "Where's the upside? Just look at Christine Blasey Ford. She got nothing but grief for speaking out, and now the president is making fun of her." 

I'd like to believe the "hell, yeah" camp now represents the prevailing attitude, but that might be wishful thinking. 

According to research by Acritas, a legal consulting firm in the U.K., a notable percentage of female lawyers experienced harassment and bullying, yet the vast majority of them never reported it. (The survey was based on 4,000 responses in over 120 jurisdictions around the world and was taken prior to the Kavanaugh hearings.)

Here are some of the preliminary findings by Acritas (the survey officially closes October 26, so can still add your input):

Sexual harassment:

-Of all lawyers, 25 percent say they've experienced sexual harassment (one in three female, and one in 15 male).

-In 78 percent of cases, the harassment was never reported it to their firm or organization.

-And when harassment was reported, the vast majority expressed dissatisfaction with the outcome (73 percent of the time the perpetrator was not sanctioned.)


-Of all lawyers, 43 percent say they've been bullied (one in two female, and one in three male).

-In 57 percent of cases, the bullying was never reported to the firm or organization.

-And when bullying was reported, the vast majority expressed dissatisfaction with the outcome (76 percent of the time the perpetrator was not sanctioned.)

 I don't see much of a silver lining in these findings except that bullying seems to be more gender-neutral. Indeed, most bullies I've witnessed in law firms, academia and elsewhere don't discriminate. They'll run over man, woman, child or small animal—whoever happens to be in their line of fire. (By the way, I think bullying should be distinguish from female-on-female torture, which is a much more subtle art.)

"There is a high prevalence of being bullied among all genders," says Kieran Pender, Acritas's legal advisor for legal policy and research. "Sexual harassment, on the other hand, disproportionately impacts women."

Here's an interesting twist: Bullying more than sexual harassment seems to cause lawyers to quit (62 percent of the time, bullying contributed to the victim leaving or intending to leave their jobs, while only 36 percent of the time, harassment lead to the same outcome.) I don't know what this means except that women seem more used to putting up with sexual harassment.

But what about all those anti-bullying and harassment policies and/or training that Corporate America has embrace? Aren't they making a difference?

Well, their effect seems quite limited. "It appears that training has more impact than policies in reducing instances of bullying and harassment by line managers [direct managers]," says Pender. However, she adds, "The main barriers to reporting sexual harassment appear to remain even after training."

You can guess the reasons women don't report harassment. "The profile/status of the perpetrator (e.g. senior member of the workplace) and fear of repercussions all remain common reasons for not reporting," sums up Pender. 

Looking at the results of this survey and Blasey Ford's experience it's hard to be optimistic that women will be more forthcoming in reporting harassment. The cost/benefit analysis seem to tilt toward silence.

But I hope I'm wrong. One reason I'm somewhat optimistic that women will speak out is that it's impossible to go back to the pre-#MeToo era—despite (or because of) what happened with the whole debacle of the Kavanaugh/Blasey Ford hearings.

Plus, as flawed and stagnant as the legal profession tends to be about addressing gender equality issues, it's light years ahead of what goes on in the Senate. I mean, can you imagine any firm trotting out a dinosaur like Senator Chuck Grassley to lead a topic like sexual assault? Compared to the upper echelons of our government, law firms are paragons of progressiveness. 

I know that might not be much of a comfort, but that's the best I can do.


Twitter: @lawcareerist 


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I guess I don't see the downside of having this president make fun of someone. I wish he would make fun of me. That would make me feel I done something worthwhile. As for the issue treated here, I think one reason for reporting sexual harassment or bullying would be that both acts are wrong. Sure, I know I am not being very practical when I say this, but I do think that some things are wrong and that the people who do such things need to be punished or at least forced to desist. And, if enough of us report such things, and keep faith in each other, then eventually my idea won't be so impractical after all. Nil illegitimis carorundum. Don't let the bastards grind you down.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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