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Yvonne Abraham

Women in law paint picture of harassment

By now, it should be clear: It’s everywhere.

We ought to recognize, nine months and countless revelations since the exposure of Harvey Weinstein’s heinousness, that women (and some men) are,

with appalling frequency, demeaned, harassed, and assaulted in every conceivable workplace.

In politics. In hotels, factories, and restaurants. In Hollywood, the music industry, the media, academia, Silicon Valley.

And in law firms. Thanks to a recent report by the Massachusetts Women’s Bar Association, we have a stark picture of what some women put up with in the legal profession. About 1,200 employees at local firms responded to the association’s survey conducted earlier this year, many of them describing harassment and bullying that they felt powerless to prevent. The incidents they detailed were not relics of a distant past: Many occurred between 2010 and 2018.

“It’s not a diminishing problem,” said Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and the report’s author. “But it is a younger person’s problem. Someone more vulnerable to power imbalances is less likely to speak up.”


Maybe, after so many stories, we’ve lost our ability to be shocked at this stuff. That makes it no less ugly. A sampling, if you have the stomach: unwanted hugging, back-rubbing, groping, kissing, and lewd comments; propositions by men in positions of power, comments on women’s clothing or anatomy, ‘brushing by’ women too closely; men watching porn on computers, attorneys sending or sharing pornographic e-mails or images; demeaning comments on race, religion, sexual orientation, pregnancy, you name it.

In the law, as everywhere else, women said they were afraid to report the incidents because they feared being labeled as humorless, or a troublemaker, or worse. Or because they had decided — based on the fact that other women’s complaints had gone unheeded — that there was no point.


“I believed that reporting my male colleague would result in my termination,” wrote one woman. If the perpetrators were popular, or powerful, or rainmakers — attorneys who bring business into the firm — they were often untouchable.

One respondent who described hearing “innumerable sexist, homophobic, racist, [and] anti-Semitic comments” said she did not report them because “I did not feel empowered to do so as associate who needed job to pay students loans and support young family, etc.”

In addition to sexual harassment, they described more generalized workplace bullying, with powerful partners, including some women, yelling at and humiliating colleagues, and throwing files and other objects — again, mostly without consequences.

On Monday, 17 of Boston’s largest law firms issued a joint statement promising to address the issues raised by the WBA survey, “to ensure that we are providing workplace cultures where negative behaviors are not tolerated and where people can work in a safe and respectful environment.”

That is delightfully direct. But will they follow through?

The solutions the WBA suggests are the ones we need everywhere: press leaders to create a positive culture in law firms; track reports of lousy behavior and hold managers accountable for the stats; do more than just separate victims from jerks or offer sympathy; develop a real harassment policy that, as Rikleen puts it, is not about just “what can we get sued over.”


But none of this matters unless firms correct the obscene gender imbalances in their upper ranks. Equal numbers of women and men have been graduating from law schools for more than a decade. Yet women make up just 19 percent of equity partners, and 30 percent of non-equity partners, at firms nationally. Fix that lopsided situation, and the magic — workplaces that aren’t case studies in humiliation — will happen.

Maybe, after the endless torrent of #MeToo stories, they all start to feel the same, and some of us have become jaded. Maybe some of us have even moved on.

That’s a response we can’t afford. There is still so much work to be done, and right now.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.