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The Singapore Law Gazette

Yes, Us Too, in the Singapore Legal Profession

In 2018, the International Bar Association (IBA) published a report titled “Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession”.1IBA, “Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession” (May 2019) <https://www.ibanet.org/bullying-and-sexual-harassment.aspx> (accessed 20 September 2020) (2018 IBA Report). The report revealed results of a survey of 6,980 legal professionals from 135 countries, and it was not good news:2Ibid., at p. 8.

Bullying is rife in legal workplaces, affecting: 1 in 2 female respondents and 1 in 3 male respondents.

Sexual harassment is also common, with: 1 in 3 female respondents and 1 in 14 male respondents.

Targets do not report. In: 57% of bullying cases and 75% of sexual harassment cases, the incident is never reported.

In August 2020, the Women in Practice (WIP) Committee of the Law Society of Singapore published a report titled “Levelling the Playing Field”,3Women In Practice Committee, Law Society of Singapore, “Levelling the Playing Field” (August 2020) <https://law-society-singapore-prod.s3.ap-southeast-1.amazonaws.com/2020/08/WIP-Report-Levelling-the-Playing-Field.pdf> (accessed 20 September 2020) (2020 WIP Report). which highlighted the IBA’s findings in relation to the Singapore legal profession. The table below compares these findings with the IBA’s findings in relation to the legal profession as a global unit:4Ibid., at p. 24.

Table 1Under-reporting
of Bullying and Sexual Harassment Incidents
Type of IncidentGlobalSingapore
Bullying57%71%
Sexual Harassment75%91%

 

Table 2Female Legal ProfessionalsMale Legal Professionals
Type of IncidentGlobalSingaporeGlobalSingapore
Bullying55%48%30%60%
Sexual Harassment37%29%**

* Not stated in the 2020 WIP Report

The WIP Committee further highlighted that “the figures [in Table 2], taken in the context of general under-reporting, suggest that bullying may be a widespread cultural issue within law firms in Singapore, and the majority of both male and female lawyers are subject to such behaviour”.5Ibid.

Are these statistics really a surprise? Not to me, at least.

I have both experienced and witnessed bullying within the Singapore legal profession. I have also heard first-hand accounts of bullying and sexual harassment from other targets6“Target” is used to refer to survey respondents who reported experiencing bullying or sexual harassment. Target is used rather than “victim”, in light of the pejorative connotations associated with the latter term: 2018 IBA Report at p. 20. directly.

There is no universal definition, or legal definitions in Singapore, of both bullying and sexual harassment.7The Law Society of Singapore, “Unwanted and Unwelcome – Sexual Harassment at the Workplace” (November 2017) <https://lawgazette.com.sg/practice/compass/unwanted-unwelcome-sexual-harassment-workplace/> (accessed on 20 September 2020); 2020 WIP Report at p.23.

It would, therefore, be helpful to consider the IBA’s categorisation of such conduct, which is non-exhaustive:82018 IBA Report at p. 39 (Bullying), and at p. 56 (Sexual Harassment).

Bullying9The distinction between bullying and reasonable supervision is not always clear. As the survey captures the subjective perceptions of targets, it may be that some of this conduct did not, objectively, constitute bullying. This caveat should not detract from the findings: 2018 IBA Report at p. 38.

    1. Ridicule or demeaning language
    2. Overbearing supervision, undermining of work output or constant unproductive criticism
    3. Misuse of power and position
    4. Being deliberately given too much or too little work, or work inadequate to the position
    5. Exclusion or victimisation
    6. Malicious rumours
    7. Implicit or explicit threats
    8. Unfounded threats or comments about job security
    9. Being blocked from promotion or training opportunities due to a protected characteristic (e.g. race, sex, religion)
    10. Violence, threatened or actual
    11. Exclusion from or bullying via social media, including work WhatsApp groups

Sexual Harassment

    1. Sexist comments, including inappropriate humour or jokes about sex or gender
    2. Sexual or sexually suggestive comments, remarks or sounds
    3. Being looked at in an inappropriate manner, which made you feel uncomfortable
    4. Inappropriate physical contact, for example patting, pinching, brushing up against the body and any inappropriate touching or feeling
    5. Sexual propositions, invitations or other pressure for sex
    6. Seriously inappropriate physical contact, for example, kissing, fondling or groping
    7. Receiving sexually explicit content or propositions via email or social media
    8. Implicit or explicit demands for sexual favours in exchange for employment or promotion, work opportunity, or for a favourable performance appraisal
    9. Receiving sexually explicit presents, cards or letters
    10. Being the subject of sexist behaviour on work WhatsApp groups
    11. Physical assault or rape

The 2018 IBA Report highlighted that not only is bullying and sexual harassment rife within the legal profession, the existing tools and measures designed to deal with such conduct are also not sufficiently effective.102018 IBA Report at p. 84. See also the IBA Webinar titled “Us too? Update: how is the legal profession responding to bullying and sexual harassment?” (10 June 2020) <https://www.ibanet.org/Us-Too-Webinar.aspx> (accessed 20 September 2020).

Why so? Some reasons include perpetrators11“Perpetrator” refers to those alleged to have bullied or sexually harassed – it is not intended to suggest a finding of civil, criminal or administrative liability: 2018 IBA Report at p. 20. being able to continue perpetrating bullying and/or sexual harassment on the same targets or other targets (whether or not in a different form); perpetrators being shielded from reviews and/or the consequences of their conduct towards the targets, and targets receiving various forms of backlash for reporting the perpetrators.12“In Their Own Words” sections in the 2018 IBA Report; Theresa Tan, “Given a year’s salary and asked to leave when she complained about harassment”, The Straits Times (12 November 2017) <https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/given-a-years-salary-and-asked-to-leave-when-she-complained> (accessed 20 September 2020).

Having spoken about the matter to various young legal professionals from Australia, New Zealand13In relation to the developments on bullying and sexual harassment within the New Zealand legal profession, readers may be interested to read Dame Margaret Bazley’s Independent Review of Russell MvVeagh (March-June 2018), and the report by the New Zealand Law Society Working Group to enable better reporting, prevention, detection, and support in respect of sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination and other inappropriate workplace behaviour within the legal profession (2018). and Singapore, our views are rather unanimous – existing tools and measures, including whistleblowing, are unlikely to work where there is a belief that the perpetrator is unlikely to be sanctioned, coupled with the fear that the perpetrator (or the firm) will attack the target’s reputation, current livelihood and career prospects, in retaliation.

The 2018 IBA Report also highlighted that younger legal professionals are disproportionately impacted by bullying and sexual harassment.142018 IBA Report at p. 36 (Bullying), and at p. 53 (Sexual Harassment). This appears to be especially true in the Singapore legal profession, where high power distance is deeply entrenched in our culture.

Two courageous young Singapore lawyers have stepped up to share their accounts.

Keren (not her real name) put up with constant sexual harassment from the perpetrator. She eventually resigned when he informed her of his intentions. Following her resignation, Keren experienced backlash. She was informed that the management received an e-mail from the perpetrator, stating that she had been terminated on the grounds of insubordination. The perpetrator also refused to sign off as the supervising solicitor on the five months that she had served her training contract under him, and threatened to lodge a complaint with the Law Society if anyone in the firm signed off on the said months for her. Keren was further informed by her colleagues, that certain individuals in the firm were shaming her with comments that she was “asking for it” because she dressed and behaved like a “whore”. I have seen Keren’s work attire; they are as appropriate as can be.

Keren was at a loss what to do, and contemplated lodging a complaint with the Law Society. When Keren approached the management on the matter, they informed her that whilst they did not object to a complaint being lodged, they would let her go if negative publicity about the firm resulted from the complaint. Keren then approached a female superior for a second opinion. However, Keren was disappointed to hear that although the female superior supported her decision to lodge a complaint “as a woman”, she asked Keren to reconsider doing so. This was because from a management perspective, it was something that the firm wished to avoid as far as possible.

Keren eventually had to re-serve her training contract for another six months, and later learnt that another trainee experienced similar sexual harassment from the perpetrator (at another firm which he had moved to).

Ariel (not her real name) interviewed with the perpetrator for a position in the firm. He made her role-play a lawyer cross-examining a witness, and told her she needed to ask certain questions – which were sexual in nature. He also made condescending remarks towards her i.e. she was stupid, she knew nothing and that her university s*****. Ariel felt humiliated. I asked why she didn’t just walk out of the interview. Ariel said she didn’t know how to, and all she wanted was to get the interview done and over with.

As far as I am aware, there are other voices out there.

The adverse psychological and emotional impacts upon the individuals who have experienced bullying and sexual harassment vary in form and in severity. Some are able to overcome the adverse impacts completely, whilst others continue to live with the adverse impacts (at varying degrees) to this day. Common adverse impacts include depression, irrational fear, false guilt, low self-esteem, etc, which contribute to an inability to perform their best.

Neither is our profession spared from adverse consequences arising from the perpetration of such bullying and sexual harassment incidents. Aptly set out by the 2020 WIP Report, lawyers may leave the profession entirely, law students may be put off from joining the profession, and there is the risk of a loss of public confidence.152020 WIP Report at p. 25.

Now that the 2018 IBA Report and the 2020 WIP Report has started the conversation thread on bullying and sexual harassment within the Singapore legal profession, members of our profession need to join in the conversation, and work together to bring about real change.

Endnotes

1IBA, “Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession” (May 2019) <https://www.ibanet.org/bullying-and-sexual-harassment.aspx> (accessed 20 September 2020) (2018 IBA Report).
2Ibid., at p. 8.
3Women In Practice Committee, Law Society of Singapore, “Levelling the Playing Field” (August 2020) <https://law-society-singapore-prod.s3.ap-southeast-1.amazonaws.com/2020/08/WIP-Report-Levelling-the-Playing-Field.pdf> (accessed 20 September 2020) (2020 WIP Report).
4Ibid., at p. 24.
5Ibid.
6“Target” is used to refer to survey respondents who reported experiencing bullying or sexual harassment. Target is used rather than “victim”, in light of the pejorative connotations associated with the latter term: 2018 IBA Report at p. 20.
7The Law Society of Singapore, “Unwanted and Unwelcome – Sexual Harassment at the Workplace” (November 2017) <https://lawgazette.com.sg/practice/compass/unwanted-unwelcome-sexual-harassment-workplace/> (accessed on 20 September 2020); 2020 WIP Report at p.23.
82018 IBA Report at p. 39 (Bullying), and at p. 56 (Sexual Harassment).
9The distinction between bullying and reasonable supervision is not always clear. As the survey captures the subjective perceptions of targets, it may be that some of this conduct did not, objectively, constitute bullying. This caveat should not detract from the findings: 2018 IBA Report at p. 38.
102018 IBA Report at p. 84. See also the IBA Webinar titled “Us too? Update: how is the legal profession responding to bullying and sexual harassment?” (10 June 2020) <https://www.ibanet.org/Us-Too-Webinar.aspx> (accessed 20 September 2020).
11“Perpetrator” refers to those alleged to have bullied or sexually harassed – it is not intended to suggest a finding of civil, criminal or administrative liability: 2018 IBA Report at p. 20.
12“In Their Own Words” sections in the 2018 IBA Report; Theresa Tan, “Given a year’s salary and asked to leave when she complained about harassment”, The Straits Times (12 November 2017) <https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/given-a-years-salary-and-asked-to-leave-when-she-complained> (accessed 20 September 2020).
13In relation to the developments on bullying and sexual harassment within the New Zealand legal profession, readers may be interested to read Dame Margaret Bazley’s Independent Review of Russell MvVeagh (March-June 2018), and the report by the New Zealand Law Society Working Group to enable better reporting, prevention, detection, and support in respect of sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination and other inappropriate workplace behaviour within the legal profession (2018).
142018 IBA Report at p. 36 (Bullying), and at p. 53 (Sexual Harassment).
152020 WIP Report at p. 25.

Braddell Brothers LLP
Member, Young Lawyers Committee
E-mail : [email protected]