Employment Law News: Sexual Harassment and Discrimination

A pervasive climate of sexual harassment and discrimination is driving female lawyers from the profession, according to an investigative report by the Toronto Star.

The Star spoke with dozens of women lawyers who say that a culture of sexual impropriety thrives in the legal profession thanks to deeply rooted power imbalances.

The report reveals that Ontario’s law society has received hundreds of anonymous complaints by legal professionals about their colleagues alleging discrimination and harassment.

But most don’t file formal complaints due to concerns about retaliation.

Filing a complaint of sexual harassment often leads to an uncomfortable working environment, eventually culminating in the woman’s departure from her job — either due to an untenable situation or the company finding a pretext to terminate her. Additionally, such actions can damage the woman’s reputation both within and outside the workplace.

“Lawyers who chose to go forward with complaints — either through their firms, their law societies, courts or Human Rights Tribunal — told reporters they faced repercussions at work or their career trajectories often changed dramatically,” the newspaper reports.

Even in situations where an investigation is conducted, unless the defendant is terminated, the sexual harassment and the woman’s complaint has destroyed the working relationship and made continued work at the employer unbearable for the woman.

Why didn’t the women report the sexual harassment? This question often arises as a defence, assuming that if harassment occurred, it would have been reported, investigated and resolved.

But that simply isn’t true.

“I understand the silence, I understand the fear,” veteran criminal defence lawyer Marie Henein told The Star. “When you come forward, it’s not just about the law, it’s not the prospect of ‘maybe I don’t get a gig.’ It’s the prospect of, ‘I’ve got to go to work and sit in the boardroom with the guy I’ve just accused.’ It’s incredibly intimidating.”