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It’s men who are being harassed, by dodgy sexual harassment surveys

13 June 2019

12:30 PM

13 June 2019

12:30 PM

In recent weeks the international press has gushed over the outcome of a worldwide survey into sexual harassment in the legal profession carried out by the International Bar Association, which found that “bullying and sexual harassment are rife in the legal profession”.

Reports on sexual harassment are commonplace and invariably get a free pass from critical review, but just this once let’s take a deep breath and turn a critical eye to the facts on which the IBA’s report of an ‘epidemic’ of sexual harassment are based.

Your first sense of unease might arise from this. This “largest-ever global survey” of sexual harassment in the legal profession was based on a survey that resulted in “6980 responses from 135 countries”. Sounds impressive yes? Wait, but no. That means there was an average of only 52 responses from each surveyed country. Not so impressive when you consider that this largest-ever survey produced just 359 survey responses from the USA, a country with 1.34 million lawyers.

This highlights the fundamental problem with this survey and in fact with nearly all surveys of sexual harassment, being that they rely on the results of voluntarily returned surveys. The results of such surveys are distorted by respondents being a selective and atypical group with a much greater than average interest in the subject matter of the survey.

You don’t need to be a professor of statistics to appreciate how problematic it is to extrapolate to an entire group based on voluntary survey responses from a very small percentage of responders within that group. Imagine if a survey was carried out questioning Australian lawyers as to whether they were vegetarians and of the small number of lawyers who responded to the survey, some 75 per cent reported that they were indeed vegetarians. Would it be statistically valid to then state categorically that 75 per cent of all Australian lawyers were vegetarians? Of course not, but yet this is the very same statistical trick used in the IBA report and on which reports of ‘epidemics’ of sexual harassment in various areas of society are invariably based.

Delving further into the IBA survey data, 67 per cent of the survey respondents were women and of these, 37 per cent reported that they had experienced sexual harassment. This means that an average of 13 female lawyers in each surveyed country reported that they had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace during their legal careers.

Lets go a little further and consider what constituted “sexual harassment” for the purposes of the survey? It included more serious conduct such as “kissing, fondling or groping” and “sexual propositions” but the great majority of reported incidents fell into less serious categories such as “inappropriate humour or jokes about sex or gender” or “being looked at in an inappropriate manner which made you feel uncomfortable”. And what time period are we talking about? Is it the last year or two years? No it’s “throughout your legal career” with the survey explicitly seeking responses for incidents that occurred even if “more than 20 years ago”. In fact of those who reported experiencing sexual harassment in their legal careers, only 29 per cent reported incidents occurring in the past 12 months.

Is there anyone left on the planet who hasn’t at least on a single occasion during the course of their career, heard an “inappropriate joke” or been looked at in an “inappropriate manner”?

And who prepared this report? Was it an impartial group who wanted to prepare a factually reliable report? You would get an idea from the group of “three independent experts” who provided input on the report and who self-describe themselves respectively as an “activist and advocate, best known for her research, publications and teaching in the area of women and the law”, a “socio-legal and feminist scholar”, and a lawyer with “25 years’ experience in working in all aspects of discrimination law, equality, harassment and vilification”. It might have been good to have a statistician amongst that group or how about at least 1 person who hasn’t built a career on the sexual harassment industry.

The IBA report into sexual harassment in the legal profession follows a well-established path of 4 steps typically adopted by reports into sexual harassment in order to generate profoundly distorted results. These are Step 1, have a group of people with pre-determined ideas regarding sexual harassment govern the design and creation of the report; Step 2, rely on voluntary return surveys which produce artificially high response rates; Step 3, use a definition of sexual harassment much broader than most ordinary people would use (such as a single incident of a joke or staring at any time during your career) so as to also generate unusually high response rates; and Step 4, produce a written report that avoids context or factual perspective and instead resorts to overblown language such as ‘epidemic’ and ‘crisis’ to describe the results.

Here’s an alternative description of the results of the IBA survey. Despite a survey being carried out designed to generate an artificially high number of reports of sexual harassment, two-thirds of the women who responded to the survey reported that they had not, on even a single occasion during their entire legal career, experienced sexual harassment. Of the minority of women who did report experiencing sexual harassment during their career, less than one-third of these reported it occurring in the past year and the majority of reported incidents involved relatively low-level matters such as an incident of inappropriate staring or hearing an inappropriate joke.

Against this rather modest factual background lets hear from Julia Gillard who thundered in her forward to the IBA report “It is hard to read this data as anything other than a global cry for change, for a world in which women and girls do not fear rape, beatings or predatory conduct at work. … The demands for deep-seated reform are insistent and determined”. There are adjectives much stronger than ‘overblown’ that could be used to describe Gillard’s statements.

It’s time for some common sense and factual honesty to be applied to these reports on sexual harassment. Until such time, it appears that it’s in fact men who are being harassed, harassed by exaggerated reports of sexual harassment based on flimsy and unconvincing data.

Ross Ramsay is a Sydney lawyer and writer.

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