As New Zealand deals with the long-running Russell McVeagh sexual harassment hearing, Australian students come up with a sexual harassment digital platform solution
A group of students at the University of Sydney have developed Confidant – an online platform where users can anonymously report and seek redress and support for bullying and sexual harassment in law firms, a problem that continues to abound in Australia and elsewhere.
In New Zealand the charges levelled at a former partner at Russell McVeagh continue to highlight the ongoing issue, which is a major problem in several jurisdictions.
The legal profession is plagued with bullying and harassment worldwide. Per a 2018 International Bar Association survey, half of women and a third of men have suffered bullying, and a third of women and 1 in 14 men have suffered sexual harassment at work.
Australia is among the worst offenders: about two-thirds of legal professionals have been bullied and a third have been sexually harassed. The majority of offences, especially of sexual harassment, are not reported.
A group of five University of Sydney students, from law, media, policy and computing backgrounds, is seeking to address this. They have developed Confidant – a free digital platform that will allow anyone working in the legal profession to report bullying and harassment securely and anonymously and receive personalised advice on avenues of recourse.
Brought together at the Sydney Law School 2020-21 Summer Innovation Program, the students range in age from 20 to 27, and are from a range of countries including Canada, Brazil and India.
Australia A High Offender
Sydney Law School’s Professor Simon Rice, a discrimination law expert who helped the Confidant team, said that rates of bullying and harassment in Australian law firms are significantly higher than global averages.
“In the 2019 global survey by the International Bar Association, a female, Australian lawyer is quoted as saying: ‘[The perpetrator] was allowed the opportunity to resign. He has gone on to a successful career at another firm whilst I am left with dealing with a lack of self-worth every day’,” Professor Rice said.
“We cannot in good conscience allow lawyers to be subjected to this harm. Anti-discrimination laws put the burden on the victim to pursue a complaint – young lawyers risk everything when they call out bad behaviour. The burden should be on the law firms to take positive action to protect their workers.”
“The prevalence of bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession is alarming,” said Nora Takriti, Women’s Officer, Sydney University Law Society. “Initiatives such as Confidant are an important platform for opening the conversation and challenging the status quo of silence.”
Ms Urvashi Bandhu, 27, a Master of Public Policy student at the University of Sydney, explained her motivation for the project. “As a recent graduate, I was bullied by my colleagues and senior staff. I was forced to leave my job, rather than report the behaviour, because there was no anonymous complaints mechanism,” she said.
“I’m happy to be one of the co-founders of Confidant, so that other young graduates don’t have to go through the same isolating experience as I did.”
Co-founder Ms Erica Giulione, 26, a Juris Doctor candidate, said: “I worked for a lawyer before starting law school. He valued my opinion, was respectful of my time, and treated me with respect. When I shared my experiences with my peers, I realised it was the exception, not the rule.
“Hearing about the treatment of young lawyers and why they felt they couldn’t come forward about their experiences told us that there’s a really important mechanism missing.”