Sexual Harassment at Work

Sexual Harassment at Work | Corporette2017 Update: You might want to check out our more recent post on sexual harassment and the #metoo movement

WOW.  Staci Zaretsky over at Above the Law has collected some amazing sexual harassment at work stories from women lawyers, and the collection is too… revolting, I guess?…  to not discuss over here. (My first reaction to the post was of a mental roundhouse kick, but the fight scene from Mr. and Mrs. Smith will have to do to illustrate the post.) What stories do you care to share, ladies? Here’s one story of the several they share:

I wore dark purple suede heels to court. Opposing counsel asked, “Where are you dancing now?” in open court. Later that morning, he came to my office with cash in his mouth.

PURPLE HEELS, LADIES. Purple heels. For my $.02, I remember recognizing that people were being inappropriate around me in my legal eagle days, also, I suppose — older male lawyers I worked with would occasionally make negative comments about some of the secretaries based on how they dressed (usually implying something regarding clubbing), and one of the partners I worked with said something once about my “long, flowing hair,” like I was a princess or something. (I was growing it out for my wedding!)  But mostly I remember there being an invisible thin line that seemed to be present in every interaction I had — that was definitely not there for my male coworkers, who were free to drink, joke, have meals, and share personal stories with partners.  Vivia Chen at the Careerist had an interesting post a year or two ago where she scoffed at the perception that older male lawyers couldn’t take female associates out for a meal, and in response got a ton of emails from older male readers saying YES, the fear of being accused of sexual harassment absolutely did limit their interactions with younger female attorneys. In some ways that’s worse, because sponsorship and mentorship are essential to move up the career ladder.

Above the Law is suggesting women lawyers band together to speak up and say something — do you know who you would speak to in your workplace if something came up? (Or, in the above example where it was opposing counsel — do you know who would you speak to regarding that kind of behavior?) Do you feel like there would be retribution — or at least judgement, such as “she can’t take a joke” — for speaking up?) How do you think workplaces should walk the line between discouraging sexist behavior and encouraging senior workers to sponsor more junior workers, regardless of gender?

Psst: we’ve also talked about what to do when a client hits on you, how to discourage a flirtatious boss, how to deal with sexist coworkers, and how to network with older men



  1. Anonattorney :

    I feel like these conversations usually take two tracks: (1) how it SHOULD be, i.e., no sexism, women allowed to wear whatever they want without inviting any comments from male coworkers, etc.; and (2) how women need to act in the workplace in light of these pervasive and persistent views to fend off or shutdown inevitable sexist behavior.

    Usually (2) in some way contradicts (1). Just addressing it now so it hopefully doesn’t create a ruckus later.

    My two cents: call out inappropriate behavior when it happens and don’t flirt at the office unless you’re actually looking for romance. Other than that, we just have to continue to fight the good fight, unfortunately.

  2. And yet her website refuses to take any steps to handle the rampant misogyny that women lawyers who want to engage in the community face.

  3. Anonymous BigLaw Associate :

    Whenever this topic comes up, I feel like I am either living under a rock or in a bubble. Probably the latter. None of these behaviors/commentary would be tolerated at my firm. Knowing the men I work with, I can’t imagine any of them thinking that this behavior is appropriate either. Maybe my firm is progressive as biglaw firms go, but man.

    • Anonymous BigLaw Associate :

      And answering Kat’s question, if something happened internally, I would probably speak up to our practice group leader (male), managing partner (female), or my own mentor (male), and then probably document with HR. I know all of those attorneys well, and any would be irate. Opposing counsel-I vote on ignoring them. And judges, not much you can do and ignoring might be a good angle, but if there is a pattern of behavior that is actually impacting results for clients, I would report to the state bar.

    • Most of this wouldn’t have happened at my big firm either, but what did happen was things like some junior associate needs to go call a car for the client, some junior associate needs to reserve a conference room for the meeting, some junior associate needs to make sure food gets ordered for lunch — and that junior associate always happened to be female. I think sometimes male associates are more likely to push this kind of work onto their secretaries (which is appropriate) while female associates are more likely to feel like they’re supposed to do this work themselves. So (1) partners, be more aware of whether you’re always asking the women to do these tasks and (2) female associates, when you’re given a task teach yourself to immediately think “can I delegate this” and if the answer is yes, do it!

      • Maudie Atkinson :

        This is definitely my experience. And it is infuriating.

      • Plus one on delegation. If someone ever asked me to go get coffee, I would offer to find a staff person and ask them to get it, and then do so.

      • Yep. As the senior (in ranking) to another associate, while in a client meeting (all men), I turned to the other male associate and delegated printing new copies and bringing it to the conference room to him. WAS SO PROUD OF MYSELF. I think he was surprised but it needed to be done.

        It’s all the small things.

        Agree that blatant stuff is not tolerated in biglaw, but small things like male partners asking male bankers to “bring a girl” to a client outing while there are 10 additional female and male associates on the call? UGH.

      • So much this. The nonbillable work that is done by females at my firm is usually substantive drudgery (filings for probono clients, set up this meeting, etc). Nonbillable work that is given to males is the fun, career-building stuff (go out golfing, make a speech at this event, etc). Just ugh.

    • Anonymous :

      Those wildly inappropriate, sexually harassing comments were practically unheard of in my Big Law firm too and would not have been tolerated. But subtle sexism was everywhere. Men mistaking young female attorneys for court reporters or paralegals, male partners asking women to do organizational stuff they would not have asked a male associate to do, and women being reviewed as either “too aggressive, can’t get along with people” or “too quiet and meek to succeed in this job” (or both in the same review – happened to me!) happened all. the. time. And that’s to say nothing of unconscious bias and the fact that women have to do better work to get the same scores on evaluations that has been well-documented by sociological studies. In my opinion the subtle stuff is way more troubling, because it’s much harder to identify and even when it is identified, firms are reluctant to take action to correct action.

      • Senior Attorney :

        Oh, man. Years ago I used to travel with a male court reporter. And every. single. time. we arrived somewhere for a deposition, the receptionist/opposing counsel/whoever was there to give us access to the room would naturally assume he was the lawyer and I was the court reporter. We laughed about it because what was the alternative, but… gah.

      • I find myself guilty of these assumptions at times as well. When a male attorney cc’s a woman and a man I assume the man is his associate and the female is his assistant. 99% of the time it’s true but I would really like to stop subconsciously making that assumption.

        • Bewitched :

          One of my outside counsel (male) had a male assistant. I was jealous, and really wished that I had a male assistant too! (Probably shouldn’t admit it, but….)

          • Female assistant :

            Yes, in a post about sexism and discrimination, please tell us more about why you would rather have a male assistant than a female assistant.

          • I also think that male/female teams can often have a better dynamic and have wished for a male assistant for this reason as well. However, I currently have an awesome female assistant and would not trade her for anything.

      • The less overt sexism is outrageous and frustrating.
        – A male equity party told the male associates in my group that he does not like working with women.
        – When returning from maternity leave, a female associate’s assigned mentor came into her office within the first couple weeks of her return to ask if she wanted to go off partner track.
        – Women who are blunt (no more blunt than the men) are told that they are too aggressive and rough around the edges.
        – A woman was told that although her work was of excellent quality that she would not be promoted as quickly through the system because she did not exude the confidence desired (but see above).
        – Partner takes all of the male associates on a golf outing.

      • Yup, whenever I hear “sexism doesn’t happen at my workplace” I automatically think (1) you are too young to notice and (2) you will eventually notice the more subtle, insidious things that aren’t done consciously but are still very much a problem.

    • I feel the same way whenever these harassment issues come up (I think that the subtle sexism is a somewhat different, though related, issue). I’ve worked at a number of different firms (between summers and graduating during the crash), and can’t imagine anything even remotely harassing being tolerated*. I don’t doubt that it happens, I just always wonder whether my experience is extremely odd or it’s just a matter of it seeming more prevalent than it really is.

      * My college jobs waiting tables, though, are a completely different story.

    • Anonymous :

      Maybe not this exact story, but stuff like this happens at my BigLaw office. Examples include:
      – comments by partners about what female associates wear
      – discussion about porn between male partners during a meeting with female associate present
      – females uniformly get lower discretionary bonus
      – male associate comment openly about a female associate who gained weight (including to me, another female)
      – male associate openly jokes about the fact that a client asked a female associate for her input on a conference call, because why in the world would anyone care what she thinks
      – males associates given substantive projects when females are given the organizational projects (on a consistent basis)

      • Anonymous :

        Oh, and I forgot to mention the time I was called a b!tch by a partner

      • Anonymous :

        I have to say that if men are going to talk about porn at work I’d prefer they do it as often and openly when I am there as when I am not. It is the “we have to behave differently because there is a woman present” that bothers me the most. Of course it would be better if that were not a subject of discussion in the workplace because it is about objectifying people, esp. women, and can make people of all kinds uncomfortable and it is not at all relevant to work.

        • Anonymous Poser :

          I have to say that I agree with Anonymous at 4:08pm. On all points. +1

  4. I’m 50 years old so I have experienced all manner of inappropriate comments – from the “I’m just joking” variety to outright hostility.

    Once and only once I went to HR. This particular situation was not about harassment happening to me, but harassment happening to a woman one notch lower than me in the hierarchy, who was (definitely) being harassed by her male supervisor: my peer. I went to HR for confidential advice and to my surprise I learned that there is no such thing as confidentiality in this situation. It turned into a formal complaint and investigation. No one disagreed his conduct was harassment, including him. The result? She quit and he still works there.

    My second to last boss was a dyed in the wool sexist who openly thought women should work until they had babies then stay home. Any time I disagreed with him about anything he called me a b1tch. But he was joking! He thought he was hilarious! So at first I said things like, “Dave, you can’t say that to me,” which he took as a further part of the hilarious joke. Then I evolved to, “that’s going in my HR file,” also hilarious from his point of view. But over time the comments lessened, so I think it kind of worked to point it out to him.

  5. DC Wonkette :

    Here’s what I really have a problem with: In almost every job where I had a male boss, rumors spread that there was something going on between us (which was never the case). And I wasn’t alone. And these rumors were spread by other women (often who weren’t fans of younger, female, motivated staff). The worst harassment of women I see is often by other women which is just sad. *sigh*

  6. Sydney Bristow :

    Luckily I haven’t experienced it as a lawyer. I’m sure it is happening around me but I haven’t witnessed it.

    That said, before law school I was the only woman in an office/warehouse of men in an extremely male-dominated field. I was harassed by customers more often than coworkers and it was usually in the vein of commenting on my clothing, joking that I couldn’t do certain things since I was a girl, or asking me out repeatedly despite being rejected every time. Trying to respond to it would get the “can’t take a joke” comments.

    What worked for me (and it is sad this is what it took) was that I had a very well respected male coworker who would tell the offender that what he said wasn’t cool. As far as I could tell, he did this regardless of whether I was around to hear it (I overheard him say it on the phone once). Sadly with these guys, the only thing they’d respond to was another dude.

    • Shopping challenged :

      Those are not hard for me to respond to, usually with something like “me going out with you would be a joke!” And if they get upset, their buddies rib them over being sore losers.

  7. Ahhhh, a topic I have many things to say about.

    Things that have happened to me:

    (1) A partner calling me a dirty whore from and to firm email, with other attorneys copied, because I had been out on some dates with a lobbyist he knew;
    (2) A senior associate telling me that my hair was distracting when I wore it down;
    (3) That same senior associate moving the Keurig so that I had to walk by him to get to it;
    (4) A different partner trying to kiss me after a holiday party (he hadn’t shown any jackassery previously and offered to walk me to my car as it was late and we were in a not so great area of town);
    (5) numerous clients who I had previously talked to on the phone assuming I was an administrative assistant; and
    (6) a client’s husband who refused to acknowledge my advice/counsel, but loved it when my male colleague parroted it right back to him 10 minutes later.

    There are more examples, but I figured that was enough. The partner who called me a dirty whore was instructed to not talk to me again unless it was to give me work and ONLY to give me work. Yea, that solved that problem. Sigh.

    • Anonymous :

      OMG. What did you do when the partner tried to kiss you? I can’t imagine trying to work with someone who had made a physical pass at me. I worked with a partner who sort of implied that he was attracted to me, and told me a lot about how unhappy he was in his marriage, but he never did anything physical.

      • Pushed him off me and told him to go to hell. Then went home. He is a VERY prominent partner and there was no chance anything would have come of it other than me getting less and less work. I avoided him from then on out. I doubt this was the first time something like that had happened.

      • Luckily, I didn’t work with him very much (although he did suggest that for 8 easy billable hours I drive him down to DC for a day), so I could easily avoid him.

        My bf works in academia and he has a hard time believing that people like this exist. He deals with other types of shenanigans, but rarely this sort of thing.

    • Yes, this is the kind of stuff that goe’s on in smaller firms and firm’s that are run by a manageing partner that does NOT care about his asociate’s. I also think that when the firm’s CFO is a dirtbag, you will get alot of nasty comments and some physical toucheing that is NOT wanted. Fortunately, the manageing partner at my firm is MARRIED to a pretty young wife (Margie) and b/c of that, I do NOT have to put up with the sexueal harasment that many other young and pretty associate’s do. Morover, now that I am a partner (and not so young and pretty any more), I get more respect from the other partner’s and mabye soon I can work my way up to become the manageing partner. But to all of my freind’s on this websight that have to put up with this type of behavior, HUGS, and FOOEY to this men that objectify us just b/c we are pretty women. We DO have brain’s also, so don’t let those dooshes forget it. YAY!!!!!

  8. I’ve never seen this type of harassment in my workplace but have experienced it with opposing counsel. We were on a call discussing a legal issue I deal with on a daily basis and he didn’t like that I wouldn’t give in on the position. He finally flippantly asked “do you even understand this issue?” to which I replied “I do. I’m an attorney.” I actually ended up winning that negotiation, but his assumption that because I wouldn’t agree with him must mean that I didn’t understand the issue literally made me see red.

    • Maudie Atkinson :

      While I occasionally notice these things from folks at my firm, my experience too is that this stuff is more common from opposing counsel and co-counsel. Ideally, familiarity breeds credibility, such that the lawyers I work with and for understand that notwithstanding my delicate lady brain, I’m pretty d*mn good at my job. Those with whom I interact less frequently are more likely to treat me as though I’m only a pretty little young thing.

  9. I’m sure I could be identified by this set of stories, but oh well.

    1) Are you Partner’s secretary? ad nauseum
    2) From a client, which had fired another firm and subsequently my firm was retained to represent it, upon meeting me, in front of my male partner: “Wow, [former firm] never brought us anyone as pretty as you.”
    3) Being asked to go to bars to drink socially outside of work with male supervisors, in a one-on-one or social setting (ie, not a work HH and not where we were otherwise friends)
    4) Numerous romantic and sexual advances by an attorney who supervised me during an internship, after the internship concluded but while I was applying for jobs to work at his organization.

    FWIW, with two exceptions, the male attorneys I have worked for by and large have been incredibly upstanding and egalitarian.

    The invisible line concept gets me so hard. I’ve experienced that. On the other hand, sometimes bosses/former bosses do want to take you out to harass you. If you say no, you’re f’ed, if you say yes, you’re f’ed.

  10. Girl Boss :

    1. When I’ve had male assistants, clients and vendors assumed I was the assistant. (And good luck to those vendors . . .)

    2. I was once told I was completely qualified for a promotion (really just a title change) except I needed to smile and say “hi” to people in the hallway more often. And this came from a female executive! I’m sure men are held back professionally by Resting B*tch Face all the time . . . .

  11. My state has a lot of female judges and I am constantly correcting clients, opposing counsel, other attorneys in my firm about the judge’s gender.

    Me: The judge could either do A or B.
    Them: But if he does A. . .
    Me: She, the judge is a she
    Them: right, whatever, anyway, if she does A.

    At this point we might have more female judges than male judges so it is really starting to bug me that the default is “he.” I know in other situations (male assistants for example) it is so rare to see them that the assumption is more forgivable. But here, it isn’t rare at all and the assumption still exists.

  12. lucy stone :

    I’m lead counsel for a governmental body. I am quite regularly asked by citizens when they can speak to a male attorney: 1. we don’t have any in our office at this time. 2. if we did, he’d report to me.

  13. I didn’t experience sexual harassment as much as gender discrimination – i.e., myself or female colleagues being taken off of sports-related deals because a male lawyer would be more interested in it, partners saying the male lawyers were too stressed so we (female associates) should give them a break, etc. The worst part of this was some of it was being done by a female partner. She’s touted as one of the best female lawyers in my field and is supposed to be this huge force in feminism and its all CRAP.

  14. Former Big Law Associate :

    I’m surprised by how many say these sexist things would not be tolerated by your firm. The majority of male attorneys at my old firm would never be disrespectful and would privately be disgusted by the comments other male attorneys made, but would never do anything about it. One of the worst offenders actually made partner. When I was a summer, I sat at a table with 3 male attorneys (a couple partners and one of counsel) and a male summer associate. Conversation quickly turned inappropriate and multiple sex jokes/references were made (including a comment about how one of them threw their back out having rough sex). I just laughed about it and tried to pretend it was no big deal, regardless of how uncomfortable I felt. However, the male summer associate mentioned it to a more senior female associate who reported it. Instead of anything happening, they turned it back around on me. I got “talked to” three separate times by different groups of attorneys in a way that terrified me. They tried to impress upon me that they knew “I had more sense then to report the incident to above the law.” Seriously. That was their concern. The economy tanked, so I ended up working their for quite awhile. I have numerous other stories both from my time as an attorney and when I was a paralegal at a different firm. I’m now in-house and one of my coworkers doesn’t tell a story without describing the appearance of at least one woman…

    • Anonymous BigLaw Associate :

      For my firm, I think it helps that my practice group is about 2/3 women, and nearly half women partners, which is odd since my practice area is normally heavily male dominated. I have been on multiple litigation teams where all of the attorneys are female (including two all female teams with two male paralegals). Several white male partners are also heavily involved in and really do seem to believe in the value of diversity recruiting and retention. With those demographics, it really makes for a conducive environment for women attorneys, and is one of the reasons I joined the firm.

  15. AnonInHouse :

    Oh man do I have stories…

    1) First legal job was the first in house for a small company – had to constantly hear owner’s comments about how various young women (like 19) looked … he would hang around their cubicles

    2) Wife (co-owner) of above would make comments about how clearly the young girls were hussies or something of that sort

    3) Male owner and I had the following convo as I brought documents for him to sign one day:
    Me: What do you have planned for the weekend
    Him: A bunch of Honey-Do’s
    Me: Ah…
    Me: I’m going to be an extra in a movie
    Him (without a beat): A porno?
    [note: it was a comedy with a big concert scene – I corrected him and then immediately called a mentor who said we need to find me a new job] I had no one to report to – it was either him, his wife or myself.

    4) Next job, I did a lot of the company’s lobbying work in DC. No less than 30 times was it stated that I should “make nice” with certain men in the house or senate of the opposing political view to “help our cause” (both from my own company and our industry advocacy group)

    5) Same job as 4 – I was called “bitchy,” “abrasive,” “difficult,” when I used the same tone and language as my male counterparts. This cost me money as I would not get a raise or bonus due to these “reviews.”

    6) Current job, I was cat call whistled at by a much older man who has some sketchy past. He likes to blame all socially inappropriate actions on his ethnicity. I immediately went to HR to report it. I do not stand for any sh!t any longer. I also made it clear in the moment that it was inappropriate. His response was he thought I was someone else. ummm… no.

  16. Babyweight :

    Groped & propositioned. Reported it and I don’t think any action was taken other than I was removed from working on that partner’s files and was told a “note” was placed in my personnel file that he couldn’t review me. Heard from a partner friend that I wasn’t his first victim at the large law firm.

  17. Anonymous :

    Male partner asked me to babysit (ironically, because he was in trial and his lawyer wife also had an important meeting), I said no. Told the most senior associate, and no one else. I think all the women in my office knew it happened and none of the men. I no longer work there, but for other reasons.

  18. At my previous law firm, I worked closely with the head of my practice group, who is an extremely prominent lawyer. He began to regularly invite me out to drinks (it wasn’t that weird, because we worked so much together and he was a mentor figure, or so I thought). He slowly began making questionable comments, then admitted he had feelings for me and wanted to have an affair. I rejected him, and he was nice about it — but then, of course, proceeded to virtually ignore me at work, and stopped putting me on as many his cases (although continued to give me some), which meant that I couldn’t work in my chosen practice area as I wanted, as he was the primary rainmaking partner in that group. To be fair, I couldn’t tell whether the reduction in work from him was due to the rejection or to other factors (such as the slowdown in his work, or that other partners began wanting more of my time). I obsessed about it constantly, and cried in my office all the time. The other associates, who had no idea, just thought I was crazy.

    It was awful. And it occurred to me that perhaps I never would have had the opportunity to work with him to begin with had he not been interested in me.

    It’s been about a year since this happened, and I have since left to join a smaller firm that I like very much.

    • Shopping challenged :

      “perhaps I never would have had the opportunity to work with him to begin with had he not been interested in me.”
      Yes. This. Different field, but totally threw me off for far too long. Total imposter syndrome; I had been known as his protege, so once he expressed sexual interest in me, I began to think that all of his interest in me was based in his pants.

      • Anonymous Poser :

        It is a damn shame how often this type of thing happens.
        “Do you actually think I have potential, professionally, or is ‘all your interest me based in your pants?'”
        (I may have to borrow that line, Shopping challenged, so thank you.)

  19. I was representing a large client at a crowded public hearing. The ALJ introduced me on the record as opposing counsel’s assistant. I had appeared in front of this judge many times. When he realized his mistake, he tried to “fix” it by explaining that opposing counsel always has such young, attractive assistants. I cried the whole drive home.

  20. A few years ago, at my current firm, we were local counsel for a big case going to trial. Per local rules, our firm needed to be present in the courtroom with the out of towners throughout the 3 week trial. Before a trial team prep meeting, my busy senior partner emailed the big shot trial lawyer (well-known nationally) that I would be standing in when he was unavailable and would be at the trial team meeting. Big shot emailed back that I need not attend the trial team meeting and was not welcome at trial, because my appearance with the all-male trial team would cause the jury to suspect “window dressing” by putting a female at the table with no “real” trial team function. This email was addressed to everyone on the trial team, including me.

    This just crushed me. I couldn’t believe I was being told I was not going to be able to get an assignment because I was the wrong gender. Yes, I cried. I called my mom. And then I summoned up the courage to respond on the email chain that this was an unfortunate stance to take, particularly since they were appearing before a female judge would would already be painfully aware of the all male nature of their trial team. Big shot ignored my comment, but my partner, to his huge credit, said, “she’s right.” Still unswayed, big shot said that he appreciated my understanding. He even called me personally to say that he felt bad about the situation and said it was a problem they could have addressed by having a female on his team in the first place, but it was too late now to add one. Then I learned one of the biggest lessons of my career. My partner took me to the trial on day 1 and said that I was going to be there until someone told me to leave. And I ended up working on briefing and research throughout trial. Lesson learned – keep showing up, even if someone says no.

  21. Not a lawyer :

    Wouldn’t there be some way you could make sure the comment was recorded in the official transcript of the proceeding? I would hope that knowing his unprofessional behavior was being recorded right along with his work would cause him to feel it in. I’m subscribing to this post in hopes of getting an answer re whether that’s possible.

  22. I’m the only female attorney in a small practice (5 other attorneys). Right before I left for Thanksgiving break, my boss told me I needed to take towels from the kitchen home and launder them. He also seemed annoyed that I hadn’t independently realized that office housework should be my responsibility. I’m 100% sure he’s never asked any of the men in the office to do laundry. I was too furious to say anything at the time but am still debating bringing it up.

  23. I work in finance, and let me tell you harassment at work is not dead. In my early and mid-twenties I didn’t notice any of these issues, but starting in my late twenties and through early thirties (where I am now), it has increased. I wonder if I’ve become more “age appropriate” or just in more after hour situations with senior male executives.
    – I’ve had clients and executives at my company wrap their arms around my waist at happy hours (I step away as soon as possible)
    – Had comments about how a dress makes my rear look
    – Been asked if I get more “fun” when I’ve had a lot of drinks (no)

    90+% of the men I work with are wonderful and would never act that way to women. But there are bad apples.