Avoiding unwanted kisses and wandering hands - this has been some of Jane Needham's experiences working as a barrister for nearly 30 years. She's hoping the recent revelations of sexual harassment within the High Court will bring real change.
In 2015 I was asked to appear on Insight, as an audience member for an episode on workplace sexual harassment. I was then the President of the NSW Bar Association, and was highly engaged in trying to make the Bar a better place to work than historically it had been, on various levels; sexual harassment, bullying, availability of flexible practice, and provision of child care.
On Insight, I gave an example of one unwanted sexual advance which involved a judge, before whom I was about to appear in a case the following week, trying to kiss me after a Bar function. It went no further but it made me very aware of how what could be viewed as private conduct could have an impact on one’s professional life.
The revelations this week of the High Court of Australia’s inquiry into allegations of sexual harassment of associates – young female employess - by a High Court Justice came as a shock akin to a body blow. While I had not heard any rumours about Mr Heydon, nor had I had any unpleasant experiences with him, the accounts of the women interviewed and the terms of the Chief Justice’s statement were depressingly familiar.
I have now been a barrister for nearly 30 years. I, like most women law students, came to practice having brushed off an array of various unwanted sexual advances from my experiences in organised sport, as a student, and even from the process of being a woman going about her life (catching a bus, for example). Having worked in and around the law for nearly a decade prior to admission, I felt that I could handle anything.
I was not prepared for the amount of effort that being a woman at the Bar took. My appearance was commented on, I had men come into my (tiny) reader’s room, forcing me to back into the wall, and was, on one memorable occasion, invited to a professional association “committee meeting” which was, instead, a table set for two and a proposal of marriage.
The other women saved me. Very quickly I was told which lift occupants I should avoid should the lift door open with only that person in it. This reflected advice given to me when I was an associate in the Supreme Court of New South Wales, that one shouldn’t take the Judge’s lift after 4pm on a Friday because of a particularly wandering set of hands. I recall a drinks function in chambers, where I was sidling around a column until I could make a clean getaway “to freshen up”. One one occasion I was followed into the ladies’ bathroom by one such colleague – luckily there were other women there who helped chase the offender out.
Now, even when I am too powerful and too scary to have to deal with sexual harassment myself (because sexual harassment is about power, not about sexual attraction), I still find it exhausting. As a former president, I regularly speak to women who are trying to advise and represent their clients while having to navigate unwanted sexual attention. They speak to me because they do not have confidence that their head of chambers, or the formal processes of the Bar Association, or the legal firm briefing them, will be able to help them. They definitely do not want to go to the police. They usually do not want to bring professional conduct or discrimination complaints. What they want is to be able to be a lawyer, to the best of their ability, without having to go through the soul-destroying and often career-limiting process of putting their heads above the parapet to get the sexual harassment to stop.
I hope that things may be changing. I recently received an email from a woman who left the Bar to go into legal academia, who said:-
“… thank you for being someone who has spoken out about this type of experience, well before MeToo ever came along and well before the headlines of this week. Thank you for always being supportive of we younger women at the Bar (at least I was once young upon a time anyway!). You and some of the more senior women that I had the pleasure of working with at the Bar were one of the only reasons I persisted there for the time I did. I just wanted to let you know that your efforts have been important and appreciated by all of us who have come after.”
I think that with the shock of the Chief Justice’s statement, showing that sexual harassment was an issue even within the High Court, women and the men who support them may become angry enough to demand real change. I applaud the approach of the Chief Justice in taking such firm and decisive steps to improve working conditions at the Court, and to issue such a substantial and effective apology to the women involved. May we have more leaders – both men and women – who will take her Honour’s lead in making sure that women are safe and are therefore able to concentrate on their role as lawyers – which is, otherwise, an interesting and rewarding career.