Vol 12, Issue 10
The other day, a friend and I were discussing the usual banalities of law student life. Keeping up with readings. Balancing work and study. At some point in the conversation, probably after I noted the concerning level of masochism we were both displaying, my friend informed me that her work as a barrister’s assistant had become a drain on her studies and social life. Essentially, her boss was an entitled dickhead, although I think she used a less abrasive term.
I pressed for details. Some days before, she had printed out her academic transcript in the office. Said dickhead (FYI, he’s a white man) quipped, “Are these really your results? Are you actually intelligent, or have I hired an axe murderer who is trying to fabricate her grades?” He’d also made a remark about her intelligence on another occasion. “You did very well in undergrad, I suppose, but you did do an arts degree. You did do a lot of soft subjects, like gender studies.”
We eventually came to the conclusion that she should ride it out for a couple of months, long enough to get a reference or the experience at least. The job probably wasn’t worth sacrificing her wellbeing. But the rent had to be paid, and it was still a good opportunity.
It goes without saying that this wasn’t the first time I had heard stories of workplace shame, embarrassment or harassment from a female peer. Such experiences are so commonplace that I’m no longer surprised when I do hear of them. Whilst we both agreed such behaviour was petty and disappointing, it was all too familiar to say that we were shocked.
I can hear some of you chiming in now. “What did you expect? He’s a barrister. Hell, that’s what he’s paid to do.” Well, my initial response would be, “since when does a license to practise entitle you to be a chauvinist pig?” My second response would be, “you’ve got a point. A little bit anyway.”
And so, dear reader, I find myself in a bit of a pickle. I should say, first of all, that I am not advocating for complacency or laxness in our behaviour toward workplace harassment. Quite the opposite, in fact. But, I do want to draw attention to a perennial dilemma facing women in the workplace, to which there are no easy answers.
Two things are not up for debate. A) Women still face appalling levels of workplace harassment from their male colleagues. B) This type of behaviour is unquestionably, without a doubt, never okay. But what do we actually do about it? Where do we draw the line with this type of behaviour? When, if ever, do we just suck it up?
I think it is all too easy to say that women should be strong and defiant, and simply stamp out harassment when it arises. But unfortunately, the ubiquity of workplace harassment against women renders the problem far more difficult than “making our concerns known” to peers or colleagues. If I called out a customer, client or colleague every time I was made to feel uncomfortable, belittled or degraded, I would, to put it plainly, be out of a job.
Take the example of the dismissal of Amy Tauber, a twenty seven year old journalist for Seven News. Tauber made complaints against an older male colleague for, among other things, commenting on her appearance and making disparaging remarks about her marital status. She was subsequently dismissed from duty immediately and without notice, for allegations of bullying a fellow cadet that had not been made known to her before.
Tauber’s experience brought to light the continued pervasiveness of the harassment and humiliation faced by women in the workplace. It was an important and timely reminder that despite all the positive developments, damaging cultural attitudes continue to put young professional women on the back foot. And so, we’re left with the nagging, unresolved question: What the hell do we do about it?
It’s clear that we need cultural change. Deep, far reaching cultural change that probably warrants another De Minimis article. But in the meantime, young women entering the workforce are still left in a precarious position. Do we just “lean in” and join the boy’s club, or do we make a stance? How do we strike a finite balance between being forceful and fitting in with the workplace culture? Because I’m a mere mortal, I cannot answer these questions here. But, I do encourage all of you, with what limited mental faculties you may have in week ten, to seriously consider what sort of workplace culture you’d like to be a part of when you enter the workforce. I’ll leave just leave this prompt about *cultural change starting with you!* here…
Cristabel Gekas is a first-year JD student
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