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Institutional allyship—a solution to help improve diversity and combat workplace sexual harassment

REUTERS/Radu Sigheti

In the United Kingdom (UK), the topic of inequality in the legal profession remains at the forefront of discussion and debate. The disparity between men and women in leadership roles is evident: 60 percent of new lawyers are female, yet only 22 percent of equity partners are female. Considering that in 2019 the UK celebrated the Centennial of women being able to practice law, the ongoing gender disparity in legal leadership is somewhat surprising.

Though inequality in the legal profession is not unique to the UK.

As we learned from the report published by the International Bar Association (IBA), ‘Bullying and Harassment in the Legal Profession‘—inequality and sexism is prevalent around the world. Of the most shocking revelations—one-third of women and one in 14 men have experienced sexual harassment in the legal profession. Of which, 57 percent of bullying cases and 75 percent of sexual harassment cases are never reported. The top reasons cited for the lack of reporting are the status of the perpetrator; fear of repercussions; and, the incident being endemic to the workplace. These seems to indicate hostile work environments that are not conducive to workplace equality.

Finding methods to change individual mindset and organisational practices is a really a priority. Many studies have shown that more diverse teams produce better outcomesand the recent research conducted by McKinsey, ‘Delivering through Diversity’ reinforces the link between diversity and company financial performance.

In efforts to find solutions to reduce inequality in legal leadership, Acritas and Thomson Reuters, as part of the Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law programme, conducted a research study to identify the main factors causing a lack of gender diversity in senior levels of law firms. The report, ‘Current approaches to improving gender diversity at senior levels in law firms and correlated success’, delivered some surprising insights about which diversity programmes were most effective—sharing practicable steps for organisations to take to level the playing field and create a more equal future for all.

Moreover, in the United States, progress on promoting equality is also evident in the Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County (2020) that ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer’ (LGBTQ) people are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Prodded by this, a quiet revolution is taking place in our workplaces protecting all workers from sexual harassment—although this is still an unfinished revolution.

Bold new solutions are needed to alter the legal landscape on inequality, sexism, and the structures that reinforce these norms in the workplace. Based on research involving interviews with Gen Z men conducted by the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School (Penn Law) in collaboration with Thomson Reuters, it’s shown that allyship serves as a potential way to reconceptualise our workplaces and institutions and as way to address stereotypes, sexism, and sexual harassment.

Allyship as assailing gender stereotypes

Apart from the business case for diversity, the fundamental fact of having a diverse workplace is considered an important way of reducing the level of implicit bias in the workplace. Our research participants endorse the concept of diversity to promote inclusion and disavow stereotypes. Indeed, one participant describes the benefit of diversity and representation by considering the immediate effect of “fostering a sense of inclusion rather than ‘otherising’ minority individuals.”

The slow disruption of gender stereotypes comes from inclusion. One participant, Ryan Plesh, a third-year law student, said that “one of the most important things is making sure that there is a critical mass of women and women of colour in the discussion. If there isn’t, those voices will be unheard”. And where their voices remain unheard, the stereotypes will remain. As such, another participant explains that through allyship it is of utmost importance that “there is a representative who is able to speak or to represent a woman’s interest”.

You can access the latest research on mapping of sexual harassment and work-family policies in the U.S. here.

However, diversity for the sake of statistics will produce fewer results than using diversity to promote the inclusion and participation of women. One participant, a second-year law student, claims that employers should have “a more nuanced view of things so you’re not constantly isolating different statistics. Statistics of people of various intersectional identities that are very diverse and providing all of these different perspective on things” can be wonderful. The participant also noted, but “if they are on the side-lines and not actually in leadership positions, then you probably haven’t achieved an idea of equality”.

Views of sexual harassment are quickly evolving

Many of our male allies identify that the #MeToo movement has been a positive step in changing workplace policies and culture. Some explained how they do not agree with the negative backlash and of the fear some men have expressed about being mentors or being alone with women in an office setting. In fact, most participants state how they themselves serve not only as allies but mentors to women in the office—ensuring more opportunities for women to advance and to speak out against injustices.

While workplace culture may be changing due to post-#MeToo activism, states have been slow to adapt to the sentiments of the movement and the beliefs that women and male allies hold. Currently, 78 percent of states have sexual harassment law that applies to employers with more than 15 employees. Furthermore, only 33 percent of states have laws that protect non-traditional workers—interns, independent contractors, etc.—in the sexual harassment laws. With more and more workplaces having interns or informal workers, the lack of protection provides a legal gap within legislation.

When looking to the intersectionality of gender and law, 51 percent of states include any LGBTQ+ protection and sexual orientation protection in sexual harassment laws. In the case of protecting gender expression, only 24 percent of states’ sexual harassment laws protect gender expression. The current laws do not go far enough to provide true workplace protections against sexual harassment to all individuals.

In the U.S., most employment contracts include mandatory arbitration provisions that bound employees to take their claims against their employer to an alternate dispute mechanism. Arbitration largely favours the employer, especially compared to jury trials. Only six states have laws that limit or ban the use of mandatory arbitration in certain cases for employees, such as for sexual harassment.

Confidentiality is another challenge. Many U.S. non-disclosure agreements allow for employers to forbid employees from making comments that could harm the company, including a sexual harassment complaint. Only nine states generally prohibit or outright ban non-disclosure agreements.

What reforms need to happen?

Based on feedback from our research participants, increased allyship along with changes in culture and sexual harassment policy and reporting mechanisms serves as a vehicle to promote all genders working together as equals. To improve outcomes, insights from our participants suggest reforms widespread policy and training programs reforms:

  • Comprehensive coverage of part-time staff and contractors: “In terms of interactive training, I have been to one of two and they have been uniformly bad. [Organizations should] have harassment policies that are strong enough to protect low-wage workers and contractors and everyone else. These policies need to cover everyone top to bottom.”
  • Changes to arbitration clauses: “Arbitration clauses for sexual harassment must go if the culture of protecting sexual harassers and profit-over-people is to be eradicated. Interactive training that simulates examples of sexual harassment both minor and egregious will be mandatory”, according to research participant Justin Pendleton.
  • Institute reporting hotline & blind review process: “Sexual harassment policies should incorporate a hotline or blind review process, so that victims have the security of knowing that they will not be on the receiving end of punitive action”, said Pendleton.

Based on insights from these Gen Z men interviews, building allies from top to bottom within organisations helps to minimise sexual harassment and implement a galaxy of initiatives aimed at combatting implicit bias, challenging in-group favouritism, and reducing work/life conflicts. Also, creating formal allyship initiatives sharpens organisations’ focus on intersectional identities and the way that gender interacts with factors such as race, class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation to reinforce patterns of subordination.

The Thomson Reuters Institute’s Transforming Women’s Leadership initiative and the University of Pennsylvania’s Carey Law School proudly present a three-part webinar series on advancing equity in leadership. Leveraging nuanced insight and brand new research around allyship and inclusivity, this series offers meaningful solutions toward advancing career and leadership opportunities for underrepresented individuals in the workplace. To register for the webinars, click here.

Contributing to the research update article: Rangita de Silva de Alwis, the Associate Dean of International Affairs at University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School (Penn Law), who leads the research on transformative leadership and allyship in collaboration with Penn Law students and Thomson Reuters.

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