All’s Fair in Law and Clerkships

CW: descriptions of harassment

I like to think of myself as an assertive, independent woman – I am a year away from finishing law school, I have lived out of home since I was 17, and have been paying my own rent for the same amount of time. So, it seems unfathomable that for nearly six months I allowed myself to be subject to verbal and emotional sexual harassment in my own workplace.

My predecessor’s spiel led me to believe I would be working for a sweet old man who at times was a little “old school”. I prepared myself for the occasional “darling”, but the infantilism, image control, emotional manipulation and sexualisation that clouded my six months went much further than “darling”.

On my first day, I had to file paperwork on the ground because of limited administrative desk space. According to him, I looked like a little girl playing with dollies. I was told on many instances that I should wear ribbons in my hair and was called “baby” and “good girl” more than my own name. As my confidence grew, I spoke up in response to some of the inappropriate remarks. All this did was intensify the infantilism and he began calling me a “naughty girl”. He also bought me gifts as some form of compensation for being underpaid and over-worked – when I tried to refuse them he acted as if it was a personal attack on his person. He complained that I didn’t like him and that I was an “ungrateful little girl”, so I took the gifts … but anytime I wasn’t wearing one, I was apparently spiting him.

Soon started the jokes about losing my job if I cut my hair. These quickly progressed into him complaining that I did not want to look nice for him and insisting I do my nails and wash my hair. One day he went as far as to offer me a facial because my skin was breaking out. Over-sized jumpers and baggy pants became my work uniform out of silent protest.

However, the two instances that I remember the most involved my sexuality. On one occasion, Senior Counsel had come down from Sydney for a client briefing and my employer jovially remarked that I should get with him – a man 30 years my senior.  I laughed and explained that he was too old. Logic would suggest it would stop there, but it did not. He asked me if I liked boys and suggested that maybe I should be hanging around high schools instead. On the other occasion, I asked him to call a client back and was subsequently compared to his dominatrix – asking him to perform a simple task evidently made him my slave. The explicit content of this remark, in particular, raised a flag.

For much of the six months I put the treatment down to his ‘old school’ tendencies and reminded myself how prevalent this experience was for other young women across industries. When I raised the issue with my boyfriend, he tried to reassure me that the position was simply a stepping-stone in the right direction, and that like many others, I was paying my dues. My dad explained to me over a long-distance call that it was ‘part of the game’, and to get through I had to keep my head down. But it was the pressure I placed on myself to remain in the job for personal validation that kept me there. I felt as though the job authenticated my being at law school, and proved that I was capable and progressing.

It wasn’t until a coincidental conversation with my counsellor that I became aware that his behaviour was not standard conduct, and the flags I had previously ignored blared red. As a stickler for psychological hygiene, I had started using the ANU counselling service once every two months and on this occasion, I had not even considered to mention the issues at work. It was instead, a joke about my work situation, which I made in passing, which drew the attention of my counsellor to his misconduct.

I gave my two-weeks notice that Friday, selling it to him as a struggle to cope with the university workload.  Unlike my predecessor, I could not put another woman in that situation despite his pleas for “a pretty young thing” to replace me.

In my final few days the Law Society approached me about putting in a complaint. The individual who handled this was incredibly supportive and understanding and I was told that any evidence I gave would be confidential – so I handed over what I had and gave a statement. The process was therapeutic in the sense that it validated my experience and confirmed to me that these were completely unreasonable conditions to work in. Nevertheless, to avoid initiating my career in scandal, I let the issue rest.

Sadly, my story is not groundbreaking. The people I have spoken to about it always have their two cents, and many have a ‘friend’ in a similar situation. I started the job with zealous high spirits, and left taxed and apprehensive.  Though I now know those experiences are nothing more than humorously absurd dinner party stories, I still am angry and disappointed – both at others’ and because of my own complacency.  The experience was purely a result of my gender and the archaic and toxic masculine culture in traditionally dogmatic industries such as law.

Ultimately, I stayed in that job despite the harassment because I felt pressured. I felt that in order to keep up with my peers I had to have a clerkship and fulfil this unspoken criterion of a good law student. I thought about how hard it is to get a clerkship and believed I was incredibly lucky to have a paying one. I felt like I was making positive steps to satisfying what was expected of me, but I was exposing myself to exploitation and unconscionable conduct.  After I left the job I realised that I have my own journey to take and that does not depend on gaining value from a clerkship. I realised that I have so much to offer an employer and that I have a right to equal work conditions not dependent on my gender nor the arbitrary beliefs of the employer.

Surprisingly, leaving the job has been incredibly empowering. I refuse to answer the twice-a-week call from him and have received my best marks at university yet.