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Sexual harassment has been prohibited in the workplace for almost 40 years.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) outlawed it almost 40 years ago, and the behaviour remains unlawful under anti-discrimination legislation at both the federal level and in all Australian state and territory jurisdictions.

Despite these laws, sexual harassment still casts a shadow over Australian workplaces and the legal profession is not immune. In fact, according to the 2019 International Bar Association’s survey and report Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession, the Australian legal profession reports markedly high instances of sexual harassment in the workplace. A substantial 47 per cent of female lawyers and 13 per cent of male lawyers who responded to the survey from Australia reported having experienced sexual harassment at work.

On 29 January 2020, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) presented the Respect@Work report, following its National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces 2020. In this report, the AHRC made 55 recommendations aimed at combatting sexual harassment in the workplace. The recommendations included several proposed legislative and regulatory reforms, as well as other initiatives for the development and delivery of prevention and response resources by industry and professional groups.

Momentum for change stalled shortly afterward, as the federal government’s priorities swung to responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. But in 2021, sexual harassment made its way back into the spotlight as the federal government introduced its Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill in 2021. The bill is currently before the Education and Employment Legislation Committee for inquiry, with a report due by 6 August.

Against this backdrop, it was timely for the Law Society of NSW to relaunch the Charter for the Advancement of Women in 2021.

It is clear we, as a profession, need to move away from the traditional approach of simply responding to complaints of sexual harassment as they arise.

The Charter requires signatories to commit to ensuring that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. Signatories also commit to establishing procedurally fair, safe, accessible and transparent processes for dealing with complaints of sexual discrimination and harassment. In doing so, the goal is to improve recruitment, retention, and development of women in the legal profession.

The Law Society has launched a number of resources on its Sexual Harassment in the Law online portal to assist lawyers and firms in rising to this call to action. There are links to the Charter, model discrimination and harassment policies, steps to be taken to report harassment, CPD and events, and other resources.

It is clear we, as a profession, need to move away from the traditional approach of simply responding to complaints of sexual harassment as they arise. We must move toward taking a proactive and holistic approach in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.

Bystander awareness training has been recognised as one key prevention tool. It is why the Charter encourages signatories to establish training programs that empower bystanders and others to report and call out offensive and intimidating behaviour. This is critical given the profound statistic in the AHRC’s 2018 report on the fourth national survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces – that 40 per cent of workplace sexual harassment incidents were witnessed by at least one other person but in the majority of cases the bystander did not intervene.

Tackling sexual harassment effectively has the potential to bring broad-ranging benefits across the profession, including improvements in staff engagement and culture, higher productivity and profit outcomes, as well as supporting a safe and respectful workplace and demonstrating best practice leadership.

If you would like to check whether your organisation is a signatory to the Charter, you can do so here.

Amanda Lyras and Lauren Cooper are members of the Law Society of NSW’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which oversees the Charter for the Advancement of Women. Lyras is Special Counsel, employment law at Clayton Utz, and Cooper is a lawyer working in the employment law team at Clayton Utz.