Man whispering in woman's ear.

If misery loves company, then American women in the legal profession can take comfort that their sisters around the world are struggling, too. It turns out sexual harassment and bullying are universal problems for female lawyers in Europe, Latin America, Asia, North America, Africa, Australia, Russia and Scandinavia.

That cheery report comes from the International Bar Association, which surveyed 7,000 lawyers in 135 countries (73% of respondents worked in law firms). IBA says it’s the largest-ever global survey of lawyers on these issues (also quite long at 126 pages).

The findings are unsettling: One in two women suffered bullying (for men, it’s one in three), while one in three women experienced sexual harassment in the workplace (compared with one in 14 for men).

Here are some other snapshots from the report:

  • Government had the highest rate of bullying and sexual harassment. Among law firms, big firms were the worst offenders for bullying.
  • More than 54% reported incidents of sexual harassments were perpetrated by a non-supervising manager, whereas the opposite was true for bullying (60.5% reported that the bullies were their direct boss or manager).
  • Most workplaces (53%) have policies to address these issue, but employees do not think they are effective.
  • Most workplaces do not give training. Though training curbs bad behavior, only 22% offer it.
  • Most victims keep quiet: Targets in 57% of bullying cases and 75% of harassment cases do not report the offense.

Victims don’t speak up for the usual reason: Fear of repercussions. That said, more men (78.7%) than women (56.9%) voiced confidence in the complaint process.

Not surprisingly, bullying and harassment affect younger employees more. And as you also can guess, sexual harassment is most prevalent for women in the 25 to 29 age group. (Query: Are men with chauvinistic tendencies treating older women with more respect or just dissing them?)

The good news on the sexual harassment front is that the most egregious forms—such as propositions and assaults—seemed to have dropped in the last two years. And says the report: “On a positive note, sexual demands in exchange for promotions or positive work appraisals occurred most commonly 10-20 years ago, and are significantly less commonplace today.” Well, thank goodness for small favors.

Anyway, what is the relationship between bullying and harassment? “They are distinct but related problems as to why women haven’t reached parity in the legal profession,” says Kieran Pender of IBA’s research unit who wrote the report, adding that both drive women to leave the profession.

While in the #MeToo era, “sexual harassment is never OK,” says Pender, “people are still reluctant to call out low-level conduct,” such as sexist jokes. But bullying might be even more subtle. “The challenge in bullying is drawing the boundary between what is reasonable supervision and bullying.”

Calling out offensive behavior, even the low-level type, is one of the report’s recommendations. And that responsibility should fall on everyone, even bystanders. “The onus shouldn’t be on the person who experiences the inappropriate conduct,” says Pender, pointing out that U.K. firm Travers Smith encouraged employees to use a code term (“That’s not cool!“) to highlight such conduct. Though the effort was laughed at when it was first introduced last year, says Pender, we should be mindful that “some of the more latent bullying and harassment are gateways to more serious conduct.”

The report’s other recommendations include customizing training (outsourced training produces the worst outcome); introducing a multifaced reporting process (assorted methods to report grievances), engagement with younger workers (yes, older men in power are the sticks in the mud); and putting the issues of harassment and bullying in the context of mental health.

All good, sound suggestions—but here’s the one I think has real bite (and most likely the one that firms will reject): Do an internal assessment, gather data and put it all out there.

The report advocates that firms not only release data about bullying and harassment but put them in the context of diversity and work satisfaction. Pender says firms can follow the example of the Big Four accounting firms, “which released data, including information about partners who were fired for inappropriate behavior.”

Wow. Isn’t IBA afraid that American firms will tell it to take a hike?

Pender demurs and says the recommendations aren’t meant to be coercive.

Well, that’s too bad. Like most issues dealing with gender and diversity, nothing happens without coercion.


Contact Vivia Chen at On Twitter: @lawcareerist.