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Addressing Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession: A Call for Change

Adv. Kemi Behari

MALE Ally and Board Member Institute for African Women in Law

In the legal profession, we spend the majority of our time each day in the workplace. We interact with colleagues and stakeholders focusing on official functions. Rarely do we consider our own safety and the impact of our actions and inactions on others,  and our own safety. Most incidents of bullying and harassment are predominantly targeted against women judicial officers and lawyers and are very often from male colleagues and managers. My perspective is supported by regular national and international reports on issues ranging from gender-based violence to sexual harassment and exposure of women judicial officers and lawyers, and support staff.

 

Workplace bullying

Workplace bullying manifests in various forms but may generally be described as repeated, overbearing or overpowering conduct by one person on another. Bullying is aimed at diminishing the power, dignity and mental well-being of another person (usually women) to break or reduce the victim to a state of despair resulting in physical, emotional or mental harm. Persistent bullying, left unaddressed will result in damage to the victim, the organization and to the fraternity. This conduct MUST be curbed.

 

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is also a scourge targeting women, legal professionals, and support staff. Sexual harassment, in my view, includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other sexual, verbal or physical acts. This is serious behavior amounting to misconduct and unlawfulness and must be addressed from the highest echelons. Many countries have progressive legislation and policies, but the will and commitment to seriously address this menace is often lacking.

 

Targeting women

 

Patriarch and gender discrimination have been weaponized to protect male interests and power. The legal profession, often considered a protector of rights and freedoms, unfortunately, has not been an exception. Headed by men in various eras, it is somewhat not shocking that in South Africa, the first woman allowed to practice as an Advocate was in 1923, and the first woman Deputy Chief Justice Mandisa Maya was only appointed in 2022.  Certainly, there must be more progressive stories for women judicial officers and lawyers. The patriarchal and gender discriminatory conduct of most  men persists t often relegating women in the profession  to subordinates.  For instance, women who are confident and qualified must be suppressed from ascending to higher career positions at work (general patriarchal conduct), women seeking to ascend to higher career positions must be stifled unless certain sexual favours are received, young women staff who are perceived to be under the control of male superiors may be requests or ordered to perform sexual functions. Often, the process starts with bullying and ends with sexual harassment and more serious acts of sexual violation.

 

Call to Action: What must be done by law firms and judiciaries?

  • Effectively implement legislation to ensure not only gender parity in the workplace but also

exceed the gender targets in favor of women to address serious historical imbalances of the past.

  • Consider the evidence provided by research and , develop and implement legislation and policies   to address these gaps.

  • Set up special forums to address sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.

  • Expedite processes to investigate, prosecute and punish acts of bullying and sexual harassment.

  • Establish support systems and special remedies for victims of bullying and sexual harassment.


 


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