Like lots of students studying law, towards the end of my degree, I took part in a few clerkship programs. Most commercial law firms run formal clerkship programs that can run from a few weeks to a few months, depending upon the firm and the city, and are held in the university holiday periods. They are paid and they are a well-established recruitment tool: law firms most often recruit their graduates directly from their clerkship programs. Law students want these roles because, obviously enough, they want employment and because the larger law firms typically cover the cost of being admitted to the profession.
I took part in three clerkship programs and the experience was illuminating. At one firm, a few weeks before I started, I was surprised to discover that I had been assigned to a practice group I had listed as my 13th preference out of 13 choices. By coincidence, or at least that’s how it seemed initially, one of my best friends from Uni had been assigned to the same group, despite also listing it as her final preference. I assumed this was because we had ranked below our fellow clerks so had been assigned our final preferences.
Turns out that wasn’t the case. On our first day in the group, my friend and I were informed by the partner that we had been selected on the basis of our photos. Many law firms take photos of graduates at their interviews and this partner was proud to say each year he picks his clerks from the photos. According to him, we were actually better looking than our photos so that was a win.
Even now, more than a decade later, I am still disbelieving that actually happened. But it did. And it wasn’t the worst of it. The same partner, in front of clients and other legal staff, asked whether I would sleep with him. I was 22. He was married with children and, at a guess, double my age. A junior lawyer intervened and said that wasn’t appropriate. He was told to be quiet. “As if you don’t want to sleep with her too,” was the retort.
Surprisingly, despite the request being so laced in appeal, I declined. The fact it was tabled in a public setting made it easier to dismiss; it was as outrageous as it was offensive. My friend and I were subject to a litany of inappropriate comments and suggestions throughout our clerkship.
Almost daily we thanked our lucky stars for being there together: if we hadn’t known one another, which was totally plausible, or had been placed there alone, it would have been far worse. We quickly learned we weren’t alone: stories abound of other young clerks being subject to the same treatment.
What were we to do? Fortunately we had jobs with another firm but even still we knew raising it would be problematic. We tentatively raised it with HR but the reaction confirmed why we hadn’t been more forthright. The underlying message was that if anything inappropriate had happened, we obviously took part in it so we were somehow responsible. It was as extraordinary to me then as it is now. The idea that a summer clerk wields any power whatsoever over a large law firm is absurd.
It angers me that it happened and I wonder why I wasn’t braver or more willing to fight it? What I was subject to didn’t ruin my life or my career. What I was subject to symbolises and perpetuates a culture that does ruin, or, at the very least, limit the careers and lives of so many women. Why didn’t I raise it?
Because I was 22 and what power did I have? The people who had power were either using it to perpetuate sexist behaviour or they were using it to protect or permit others to do so.
There are many parallels between medicine and law. Both professions have had as many, if not more, women studying in them than men for years and both professions still have a tiny percentage of women in the most senior ranks. Both professions remain highly hierarchical.
In law firms partners are afforded something akin to god-like status, as it seems surgeons are in operating theatres and hospitals. In that context, what hope does a summer clerk or a trainee doctor have of demanding appropriate conduct from partners or surgeons? The only hope they have is that other people in the system will barrack for a safe and respectful working environment that demands it.
And that is what riles me about Dr McMullin’s comments. No person on their own can overhaul a toxic workplace culture but individual people can reject the symptoms of it and they can be part of the process that builds a safe and respectful working environment.
They can model appropriate behaviour themselves. They can identify unacceptable behaviour when they see it. They can report unacceptable behaviour to the appropriate College or the relevant senior member of staff. They can notify the hospital. They can reach out to their colleagues that have a similar attitude towards rejecting unacceptable behaviour and enlist them. They can encourage their colleagues to develop an attitude about rejecting unacceptable behaviour. They can support anyone who has been or is subject to unacceptable behaviour.
Are these things all easy? No. Are feathers likely to be ruffled? Most likely. Is it better than telling someone to stay silent in the face of sexual harassment? Absolutely.
The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.
Simply saying sexual harassment shouldn’t be tolerated in workplaces is not enough; if you believe it shouldn’t be tolerated you have a responsibility to ensure you don’t permit or promote it. If you believe sexual harassment should be tolerated I’m going to borrow Lt General David Morrison’s expression and suggest you get out.
Last week an extraordinary abuse of power that took place at the Sydney boys’ school Knox was exposed at the Royal Commission. It was breathtaking and appalling. But is protecting people in power – even when their victims are powerless and vulnerable – a relic from the past? It seems not. How many workplaces does it continue to plague? How many careers has it limited? How many lives has it ruined?
It’s impossible to say but until this abuse of power is rejected – not tacitly accepted – it will continue to reak havoc.