he Association of Women Lawyers (“AWL”) is troubled by yet another revelation on social media about sexual harassment in the legal workplace.
Sexual harassment, like sexual abuse and sexual violence, is rooted in a historic power imbalance and the patriarchal culture that permeates governments, the private sector, international organisations, and even areas of civil society.
This is endemic and continues to plague the legal profession despite repeated calls by the AWL that the legal profession must take effective and meaningful steps to combat sexual harassment in the legal workplace and to provide lawyers with working environments that are safe, conducive and supportive.
AWL’s 2014 Baseline Survey revealed that 31% of respondents working within the legal profession have experienced “sexual propositions and gender-based discrimination”.
The survey also revealed that younger lawyers are more likely to be sexually propositioned by their colleagues, clients or bosses. A 2019 survey by the International Bar Association (“IBA”) revealed that in Malaysia, only 17% of respondents indicated that their workplace has existing policies to address sexual harassment matters.
Despite the prevalence of sexual harassment in the legal profession, to-date there is no mandatory requirement by the Bar Council that law firms put mechanisms in place to address sexual harassment matters, including introducing and implementing clear policies and practices for all individuals within the legal firm.
AWL would like to emphasise that individuals who have been raped, sexually assaulted and sexually harassed have to deal with a variety of emotions and the psychological impact of such incidents, including coping with feelings of humiliation, degradation, shame, embarrassment, as well as anger, frustration and grief.
The lack of well-structured and victim-sensitive policies and mechanisms to address sexual harassment forces victims into silence and pushes them to hide their experiences, because the cost of speaking out is too much to handle without the effective and meaningful support of regulatory bodies and other professionals.
In some instances, victims who just want to be heard may resort to their personal social media profiles, and do so at the risk of attack, trivialisation of their experiences and even retaliation.
To effectively stamp out sexual harassment, the Bar Council should ensure that law firms, regardless of size, adopt workable internal policies and practices with the following core elements:
- To recognise that sexual harassment is a form of gender-based violence and is a violation of human rights. The pervasive nature of sexual harassment in the workplace is a reflection of the existing unequal power relations.
- To recognise that there is an obligation to provide a safe and conducive working environment for all individuals.
- To recommend workplace procedures that are suitable and effective to investigate and take action, where necessary, and to ensure that investigations are conducted by independent and unbiased individuals.
- To emphasise equality of treatment for those reporting and those accused of sexual harassment.
- To recognise that gender inequality sits alongside and across other forms of inequalities, such as race, disability, sexual orientation and age. How these intersect to shape sexual harassment policies, responses to reports, or avenues of redress, needs to be woven through all work on sexual harassment.
- To advocate for sexual harassment legislation in Malaysia that will properly address the highly complex and sensitive issue of sexual harassment effectively and efficiently.
Survivors have, in a variety of forms, come out to reveal the inconvenient truth about our profession. Regardless of whether it is one victim or a multitude, regardless of whether it is one law firm or many, regardless of the form of such revelations, the onus is now on the Bar Council to pay attention, take action including supporting the victim through the necessary processes, respecting confidentiality and seeking accountability on behalf of such victims.
The Bar Council is accountable and continued inaction on its part will be tantamount to endorsing such continued unhealthy practices within the profession.
AWL calls upon the Bar Council and all law firms in Malaysia to implement and enforce internal policies and practices to eradicate sexual harassment in the workplace and to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable, and survivors are protected.
Meera Samanther is Vice President of the Association of Women Lawyers.
- This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.