Young Professionals, Especially Lawyers, Have a Role to Play in #MeToo

Tyler Holmes

When allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein were first published in the New York Times last year, few knew that society was about to embark on a broad conversation about power, sexuality, and consent. In the months that followed, the ousting of many other powerful men (and women) in journalism, performing arts, startup companies, and, of course, politics, has caused men and women to reflect on their own actions in and outside of the workplace. Unfortunately, this is a conversation that was and is desperately needed in the legal industry as well.

#MeToo has drawn both widespread praise and use by people who have experienced sexual harassment and either would not or could not expect to receive any kind of legal relief. Though it isn’t perfect, this movement has highlighted pervasive, unwanted behavior and has given legal practitioners an opportunity to improve the law, institutional responsiveness, and even nondisclosure agreements involving sexual conduct that tend to protect powerful perpetrators.

While there are many roles for lawyers to play as experts and practitioners, #MeToo must enter our lives as coworkers first. On the “Lawyer to Lawyer” podcast, SMU Professor Joanna L. Grossman stated that four out of ten women report experiencing something that qualifies as harassment every two years. In the legal industry, Professor Grossman says studies show that number is as high as 60 to 67 percent.

One of the core issues for addressing sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct in the workplace and society is that many people disagree about what, when, and where conduct is considered inappropriate. The good news, according to respondents to a December 2017 Reuters poll, is that American adults generally agree that nonconsensual touching, groping, or kissing constitute sexual harassment.

But where is the touch located? Fewer than 50 percent of respondents to a 2017 poll by YouGov thought that placing a hand on a lower back or commenting on sexual attractiveness was either always or usually harassment. Polling also seems to reflect inconsistencies as to how adults view making sexual jokes and unwanted hugging.

Age and gender strongly influence what many people consider to be acceptable and unacceptable behavior: About 50 percent of women and men aged 18 to 30 thought that looking at breasts was sexual harassment; only about 30 percent of men over the age of 50 thought that same conduct could be considered harassment. Millennials in the Reuters poll were more permissive about sending pornographic pictures.

Clearly, Americans do not agree on what constitutes sexual harassment, much less the wide variety of inappropriate, insensitive, or isolated conduct that may never rise to the level of creating a hostile working environment, which is one standard set by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the other is quid pro quo).

We may never achieve consensus in society, but we can help our workplaces create strong, clear rules and set an example. Though you may be quite sure that you are not sexually harassing anyone, take some time to consider the who, what, when, and where of your actions and comments. It can be difficult to know when an offhand comment or even a hug will be ill-received or misinterpreted, but you can avoid unthinking moments by actively considering prejudicial norms and power differences.

Instead of acting out of fear of harassment, promote an inclusive workplace. Seek out diverse teams in your work (and professional panels); avoid interrupting women; make sure credit is given where it is due (no “hepeating”); and don’t demean or reduce women into two-dimensional, romantic conquests without complexity or ambition. Call out others’ problematic behaviors. Consider how you would want to be treated, viewed, and respected if you shared the same history and perspective: A compliment regarding your team member’s outfit may be very appropriate and welcome in the hallway, but the same compliment may be seen as undermining in a client meeting. Avoid commenting on [insert coworker’s bodily function or shape] until or unless that woman reveals it to you of her own accord.

Young professionals are crucial to creating an inclusive working environment and society for everyone. Taking stock of your actions and discussing these issues with your friends and colleagues can help you become more aware of your blind spots and, hopefully, avoid or reduce any chance that you will be the source of any inappropriate or insensitive behavior.

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.

Tyler Holmes

Tyler Holmes is a volunteer fellow with the Southern Africa Litigation Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa.