Sexual harassment, not yet a relic

Decades ago, when the conversation about sexual harassment began, people started to recognize that patting a female colleague on the bottom or hanging posters of scantily clad women in the workplace was both wrong and harassment. Awareness campaigns largely eradicated those types of specific behaviours, and yet sexual harassment manages to survive.

Anne Chopra“The greatest number of calls I get continue to be on the grounds of sexual harassment,” said Anne Chopra, the Equity Ombudsperson for the Law Society of BC. “Generally speaking, the overt, blatant comment or act is not so common, anymore. Yet, there are still those who make inappropriate comments, make sexual advances or tell inappropriate jokes.”

So what does sexual harassment mean today?

“Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination based on sex,” said Chopra. “It is a serious abuse of power. Harassment can be a demand for a sexual favour in exchange for a benefit, or an unwelcome action or comment of a sexual nature. It is important to note that intention behind the act or comment is not required for it to be discriminatory; rather it is the impact of the behaviour. Further, the victim does not have to object or communicate that the comment or behaviour is unwelcome.”

While men can be victims of sexual harassment, the vast majority of complaints Chopra receives are from women. “Over the last 11 years, I have only received two calls regarding sexual harassment where the victim was a male.”

Chopra has also received complaints from women who are early on in their legal careers. “Women articling students are telling me about inappropriate proximity to them, such as hovering over them while editing or standing too close while giving instructions. I’m also hearing about inappropriate questions at articling interviews, such as, ‘You’re in your 30s, are you ­planning on having children soon?’ or ‘I see you took feminist courses, so are you a ­lesbian?’”

Harassment can have significant consequences for the firm. Chopra highlights the following:

  • the firm’s reputation is blemished among the profession and may then have difficulty attracting qualified female lawyers to the firm;
  • job satisfaction is reduced for targets or witnesses of sexual harassment;
  • the loss of job satisfaction can lead to a reduction in billable hours;
  • interest or requests for promotion within the firm can diminish; and
  • turnover increases for staff and associates, thus increasing training and recruitment costs for new employees.

Chopra says the impact on the individual who is subjected to sexual harassment can vary, but can include the following:

  • reduced concentration at work;
  • increased stress;
  • physical problems, such as headaches or high blood pressure;
  • symptoms of depression, such as sleeplessness, distraction or a lack of interest in work;
  • marital or family problems; or
  • substance abuse, such as self-medication with prescriptions, drugs or alcohol.

Sexual harassment can make women feel unwelcome in the legal profession and ultimately be a contributing factor to them deciding to change firms or careers. Anyone wanting to confidentially discuss concerns they have or talk about positive strategies for law firm culture is encouraged to contact the Equity Ombudsperson.

You can reach Anne Bhanu Chopra on her confidential, dedicated telephone line at 604.687.2344 or by email to The Equity Ombudsperson is independent of the Law Society, reports only anonymous statistical data, confidentially assists anyone who works in a firm in resolving concerns over possible discrimination and assists law firms in preventing discrimination and promoting a healthy work environment.

Readers may also refer to the series of articles on sexual harassment written by lawyer Patricia Janzen and published in the March, May and October 2008 issues of the Benchers’ Bulletin

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