Sexual Harassment in the Profession
Search
Annual registration Directory of lawyers

Resources for lawyers

Sexual Harassment in the Profession

In an effort to get a clear picture of the situation in the practice of law and identify possible solutions, the Barreau du Québec has collaborated since 2017 in a survey conducted by a team of researchers from Université Laval to draw up a report that deals specifically with sexual harassment and violence in the practice of law in Quebec. The survey is the largest study conducted on these issues in the Quebec legal community.

As part of the study, an online questionnaire was sent in the fall of 2018 to all members of the Barreau as well as articling students, generating a response rate of 14.5%, with a total of 3,785 questionnaires completed. 63% of the questionnaires were completed by women and 36% by men. The remaining 1% was broken down as follows: 0.2% Trans, 0.4% I prefer not to answer, and 0.4% Other. It should be noted that only articling students who agreed to have their email address forwarded for this purpose received the questionnaire.

We would like to thank the thousands of members and articling students who took the time to share their experiences on these often painful subjects.

Sexual harassment and violence exist in all spheres of society and can occur in all employment contexts. Several studies have been conducted on this subject in recent years. As a professional order, the Barreau felt it had to take responsibility and take stock of this sensitive issue, as all members should be able to practice their profession in an environment free from harassment.

Participation in the survey was voluntary, and the sample collected is one of convenience, meaning that the results presented are documented only by those who responded to the questionnaire and cannot be considered representative of all members and articling students.

Nonetheless, given the importance of the issues addressed by the survey, we consider it essential to disseminate the report and initiate any ensuing discussions without further delay.

Next Steps

The Barreau is already taking concrete steps to help reduce and report sexual abuse and violence within the profession, including the following:

  • Assistant syndics as well as members of the Barreau’s committees and decision-making bodies receive specific training on issues related to sexual assault or misconduct;
  • On October 21, 2020, a provision was adopted for inclusion in the Code of Professional Conduct of Lawyers, specifically prohibiting all forms of harassment;
  • In 2019, the École du Barreau implemented a policy and mandatory training for its students and employees as well as its articling supervisors, in accordance with An Act to prevent and fight sexual violence in higher education institutions;
  • In 2018, the Barreau du Québec’s policy on harassment in the workplace was revised to take more specific account of these issues.

Now, in the wake of the report, the Barreau is carefully considering other measures. More specifically, the Barreau intends to:

  • make the survey report public and popularize the results;
  • make free online training on this topic available to all members; and
  • continue to raise awareness about reporting the acts covered by the report.

You can access the full report  (English version will be available soon) as well as a summary prepared by the Barreau.

Summary of the survey report prepared by the Barreau du Québec

In this section, the Barreau du Québec presents a summary of the key takeaways from the report of the survey conducted by the Université Laval research team.

The three categories of sexual violence documented in this study are:

  1. sexual harassment
  2. unwanted sexual attention
  3. sexual coercion

Bear in mind that the definition of “sexual harassment” used in this study is not limited to sexual harassment or assault as defined by law.

It should also be noted that a significant proportion of the violence reported has occurred in the last five years.

Sexual harassment refers to verbal and non-verbal behaviours that convey insulting, hostile and degrading attitudes. It is the category of violence most reported by all participants.

Of the women who answered the questions on the different forms of sexual harassment:

  • almost half (50.2%) reported repeatedly being told offensive sexual stories or jokes;
  • 36.3% reported attempts to start a discussion about sex, even if they did not like it;
  • one-third reported being wolf-whistled or catcalled (30.3%), receiving derogatory remarks about their appearance, body or sexual activities (30.5%) and being subjected to sexually suggestive gestures that offended or embarrassed them (30.3%).

Of the men who answered the questions on the different forms of sexual harassment:

  • 21.7% reported repeatedly being told offensive sexual stories or jokes;
  • 17.5% reported attempts to start a discussion about sex, even if they did not like it;
  • 13.7% reported receiving derogatory remarks about their appearance, body or sexual activities;
  • about 9% reported being subjected to sexually suggestive gestures that offended or embarrassed them (9.6%), but also being wolf-whistled or catcalled (9.1%).

Unwanted sexual attention is verbal and non-verbal behaviour that is offensive, unwanted and unreciprocated. The forms of unwanted sexual attention most reported by women were being touched in a way that made them feel uncomfortable (27.1%). In addition, about 2% of women who responded to the statement “Had sex with you when you did not want to?” answered in the affirmative. 20.6% of women and 12.3% of men who responded to the question whether anyone had ever attempted to establish an intimate or sexual relationship with them in the course of their professional practice despite their efforts to discourage it said that they had experienced this type of situation.

Sexual coercion is characterized by extortion in return for future job-related considerations. It is the least reported category of violence, but it should not be overlooked because it has serious repercussions for victims. Among those who answered various questions on the forms of violence consistent with sexual coercion, 4.2% of women reported suffering negative consequences after refusing to engage in sexual activities, compared to 0.4% of men who answered this question.

High-risk groups, settings and contexts

The study shows that women, sexual minorities—especially men who identify as homosexual—and racialized individuals are more likely to experience sexual violence.

A more precarious status of employment and hierarchical relationships also seem to be risk factors:

  • Both men and women reported mostly experiencing violence while they were students, articling students or employees. The acts reported were committed mainly by fellow lawyers or partners in their organizations.
  • Women reported that the acts were committed mainly by individuals of higher hierarchical status, while men reported such acts being committed by individuals of equal hierarchical status.
  • In nearly 60% of cases, respondents experienced the violence reported while they were in private practice, followed by “public or para-public organizations” in about 25% of reported cases.

Type of assistance desired

Respondents prefer assistance from outside their organization in the form of psychological support offered by an organization or stakeholder (52%) or information on possible recourses provided by an external resource (42%).

Raising awareness and fighting sexual harassment and violence

According to those who responded to the questionnaire, to raise awareness and fight sexual harassment and violence, organizations and the Barreau du Québec should:

  • adopt clear and transparent policies to inform of existing channels and the steps to be taken;
  • raise awareness and inform on legal rules, ethical obligations and internal policies;
  • disseminate a list of options, including confidential and anonymous ones, to obtain support and disclose or report the situation experienced.

In addition to taking the steps outlined above, the Barreau du Québec should also provide training and promote and support the role of the Office of the Syndic.

Of those who commented on the subject, 41% of women and 26% of men said that the Barreau is not proactive enough in raising awareness about sexual harassment and violence.

The research report has shown other areas of concern, which the Barreau intends to address to guide its actions. These are outlined in the following section.

Repercussions of violence

The violence experienced has an impact on the career paths of those who participated in the survey. Participants who commented on the subject identified mainly the following:

  • 68% of women and 39% of men said they avoided contact with the person who committed the acts;
  • 19% of women and 11% of men said they had reorganized their work (e.g., switching files with a colleague, withdrawing from a case, etc.); and
  • 19% of women and 6% of men said they had changed career path (new organization or position).

The violence experienced also affects the victim’s health. Those who answered the questions on this subject identified the following issues in particular:

  • 13% of women and 4% of men reported suffering from psychological problems following the events (anxiety, disability, depression, etc.);
  • 22% of women and 7% of men had nightmares or relived the event.

Disclosure, whistle-blowing and reporting

Disclosure is the act of talking about events without necessarily approaching the authorities. Those who participated in the survey disclosed sexual harassment or violence mainly to acquaintances or co-workers.

As seen in other studies on the subject, people disclose more than they blow the whistle or report. The results obtained from those who answered the questions on disclosure, reporting and whistle-blowing are as follows:

  • 72% of women and 46% of men who answered the question disclosed the incident to at least one person other than the person who committed the acts.
  • Reporting and whistle-blowing, which imply approaching the authorities, are minimal considering the amount of violence suffered. 1% of the men and women who answered the question reported the incident to the police or the Syndic of the Barreau.
  • To explain the reluctance to report incidents to resources or organizational authorities, 60% of the women and 50% of the men who commented on this issue thought that the situation was not serious enough to report, while 30% of women and 25% of men wanted to put the incident behind them. 25% of the women who answered the question said they had not reported the incident because even though they wanted the acts to stop, they did not want to file a formal complaint. They also feared reprisals from the perpetrator or those around them.

Survey on Sexual Harassment and Violence in the Practice of Law

In an effort to get a clear picture of the situation in the practice of law and identify possible solutions, the Barreau du Québec has collaborated since 2017 in a survey conducted by a team of researchers from Université Laval to draw up a report that deals specifically with sexual harassment and violence in the practice of law in Quebec.

The Report: Questionnaire on Sexual Harassment and Violence in the Practice of Law (English version available soon)  written by Université Laval researchers Isabelle Auclair, Sophie Brière, Antoine Pellerin, Julie Dextras-Gauthier and Amélie Keyser-Verreault, was prepared in 2020.

(English version will be available soon)

Resources