The importance of numbers
Surveys, says Meredith Ainbinder, president of the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts (WBA), provide important barometers of both progress and challenges—part of the reason why, in the wake of #MeToo, the bar sponsored the Survey of Workplace Conduct and Behaviors in Law Firms to gauge the extent of sexual harassment in the Massachusetts legal community.
Providing some concrete numbers, along with confidential experiences from dozens of women across the state, she says, brought out into the open “stuff we’ve been talking about for years. People need to feel like someone is standing up for them.”
The survey and subsequent report with recommendations was developed and written by Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and author of several books focused on women in the workplace. Among the findings in the survey of about 1,000 women and 200 men, conducted earlier this year:
- Nearly 38 percent of respondents said that they had been the recipient of, or copied on, an unwelcome email, text, or instant message of a personal or sexual nature at work. Of those, more than 66 percent said that they did not report the incident.
- More than 21 percent stated that they had been the recipient of or witnessed unwelcome physical contact at work.
- Nearly 40 percent did not know if their firm had a policy for reporting sexual harassment, while another 13 percent said their firm had no policy at all.
As a veteran lawyer, former firm equity partner and the current co-chair of the ABA Women’s Caucus, Rikleen has seen and chronicled her share of gender bias, sexual harassment and sexual assault in the profession. Still, she says, the survey findings underscore the lasting and pervasive problems—particularly in the failure to report and take action.
“That’s worrisome on every level. People are enduring conduct and behavior they shouldn’t have to endure, and it means the workplace never changes because no one is demanding change,” she explains. “It means doing a better job communicating at all levels of the process.”
And as Ainbinder and the WBA had hoped, the report—complete with first-person anecdotes of sexual harassment and assault—is generating conversation in the profession.
The Boston Larger Law Firm Managing Partner Group, representing the 16 largest law firms in Massachusetts, issued this statement after the report’s release: “It is clear from the survey that much work needs to be done and we are committed to addressing these issues together―and in our own firms―to ensure that we are providing workplace cultures where negative behaviors are not tolerated and where people can work in a safe and respectful environment.”
In Iowa, the Iowa State Bar Association posed a single question to members, post-#MeToo: “In the past five years, have you experienced or witnessed behavior that you felt demonstrated harassment or discrimination on the basis of gender, or other forms of gender bias, in the practice of law?”
The startling result: 84 percent of women respondents answered “Yes,” as did 34 percent of male respondents. That prompted an open letter to members from bar President Stephen Eckley, telling them, “We need to do better.”
Eckley says bridging the chasm between how men and women attorneys view sexual harassment requires education and discussion among all members. “We have to continue the discussion that has now been started,” he says. “We have to keep things front and center.”