Women Know Who the Predators Are

In the past few years, sexual harassment allegations against several high-profile media executives have generated significant discussion, including on social media. Last week’s New York Times story titled “Decades of Sexual Harassment Accusations Against Harvey Weinstein” is no exception. My Twitter feed was alight with comments and commentary moments after the story was published. A couple of tweets in particular grabbed my attention:

One of the reasons that these tweets struck me is because they reminded me of something that I heard a very established senior litigator say at a lawyer social event years back when I was a new lawyer. In response to a general discussion about workplace culture and challenges faced by women in the profession, he commented “women know who the predators are” or something to that effect. At the time, it struck me personally as self-evidently true and I didn’t dwell on it too much (this is perhaps interesting in itself). Now, thinking back, I’m compelled to ponder the implications of this statement.

There is considerable evidence, and hopefully an emerging consensus, that sexual harassment has been and continues to be a problem in the Canadian legal profession. For those interested in more background, Alice Woolley has thoughtfully written on about this issue previously and Ontario’s Discrimination and Harassment Counsel, an arms-length entity funded by the Law Society of Upper Canada, publishes statistical reports on its website about complaints received (for a highlight, see the 10 year summary report which notes that sexual harassment was reported in 151 complaints against Ontario lawyers and articling students between 2003-2012).

We don’t know with any precision, however, how many “open secrets” (to use Valenti’s term) are out there or how much known predatory behaviour has been or is being excused in the name of rain-making or other forms of power within law firms. If “women know who the predators are”, there must be some predators out there to know? And, perhaps more importantly, if it is the case that some women in law firms have been left to the unsatisfactory solution of self-guarding against known harassers, what is to be done?

No doubt, law societies should continue to welcome complaints about this type of behaviour. Additionally, any forms of entity regulation introduced should engage with the question of how sexual harassment can be prevented and, if necessary, productively addressed after the fact. This regulatory response, however, is clearly not enough. In her previous column, Professor Woolley had left us with some wise words:

I refuse to believe that we cannot do better. If we can learn to call each other learned friends, and express our most hostile thoughts with respect, then surely we can try to create a culture where the subject of our colleagues’ “hotness” is not discussed, where we create appropriate separation between professional and sexual interactions, where senior lawyers embrace the limits on personal interactions that come with seniority and power, and where drinking much too much is not a normal condition of social interactions between lawyers.

That learning comes through acculturation. And I have told this story as much as anything in the hopes that it will begin productive conversations and – hopefully – further progress towards that kind of change.

This was written roughly three years ago and we have not yet, as a profession, full-throatedly taken up Professor Woolley’s call to begin the conversation and progress towards the type of change we need. I’m optimistic that we will eventually reach a tipping point. But, whether we’ll have the moral leadership and courage to reach this point ourselves or, alternatively, have it externally thrust on us, as have other industries, remains to be seen.

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