‘I’ve already had my heart broken multiple times’: Ali Mau on hearing the stories of #MeTooNZ

Alex Casey talks to Ali Mau about the launch of #MeTooNZ, a nationwide investigation into sexual harassment and assault. 

Ali Mau has never been busier. Not even one week after she launched #MeTooNZ, a nationwide investigation into workplace sexual harassment, Mau has been inundated with calls from hundreds of survivors wanting to share their experiences from a broad range of industries across the country. “I’ve been waiting, since the Harvey Weinstein revelations, for the #metoo movement to come to New Zealand,” she wrote in her column over the weekend. “I don’t mean as a hashtag, or a social media campaign; I mean as a planned, organised outlet for survivors of workplace sexual harassment to come forward.”

Garnering support from journalists and the public alike, #MeTooNZ provides a myriad of ways for people to securely get in touch with Mau and her investigative team, and promises a range of support options once they have reached out.

Despite outlining the rigorous systems that are in place, there remains some very loud, very confused voices denouncing the project. Last week, Mike Hosking labelled it as a tasteless, tacky tabloid campaign. Yesterday, cartoonist Al Nisbet – oddly, in a Stuff publication – mumbled something quite weird about scary witches who are also on a witch hunt.

I talked to Mau over the bluetooth speaker in her car – the modern day witches telepathy, you might say – about lending an ear to the stories that might otherwise never be told.

How have the past couple of days been since you sent out that very first announcement?

It’s been really full-on. I’ve had upwards of 200 contacts from people wanting to tell their story. Not all of those people want to go on the record, or even have us investigate their situation, even though some of the complaints are really really serious. I’ve already had my heart broken multiple times over the weekend and the end of last week reading the stories. Quite a few of them have never spoken about their situation before and just wanted to tell somebody in confidence.

They don’t really even expect anything to come of it, which is a really common experience for women and men who experience sexual harassment at work. Many of them have tried to go to HR or to tell their immediate superior. They think that something will happen and it doesn’t. They end up being sidelined, or demoted or passed over for promotions, or bullied for speaking out. They leave their jobs or even their careers. They end up broken. It’s awful.

It’s such an indictment on all the structures that we have in place for these situations that this is the first time people feel safe enough to talk about it, isn’t it?

One of the things that really concerns me is the way the system deals with these kinds of complaints. Back in the 80s and 90s, when sexual harassment policies were first brought in to organisations, it was very victim focused. The training videos were focused on how this behaviour affects women in the workplace. In the intervening decades, many of the policies and training are now concentrated on what you can and can’t get away with under the law and how to avoid any negative publicity for your organisation. They’re completely focused on the legal bits and not on the victims at all.

That is one thing I’d really like to see change. Not just through our investigation, because we’re not the only people working in this area at the moment. There are some incredible initiatives happening right now, for example SWAG is a support network for women in the film industry who have experienced sexual harassment. There’s also the blog from Zoe Lawton which covers the legal industry and is a place where people can share their experiences completely anonymously. That’s an amazing initiative, it’ll be the first time that many of those people have had an avenue to speak out.

Talking of a collective effort, how useful were those early conversations with Tracey Spicer for the project?

Oh, absolutely incredible. Tracey has been busy with this for five months now, but when she can she’s given me quite a lot of fabulous advice and has been really encouraging. She has a very effective system in place that’s been widely praised from the Australian media because she’s made sure that women or men who get in touch with her are not just left after the story airs. Right from the start, they’re given options to lay a police complaint, which we must emphasise is always recommended in cases of sexual assault.

A lot of people don’t want to lay a police complaint, a lot of people haven’t accessed counselling before and have kept to themselves, and feel that they could perhaps benefit from counselling having told their stories. One thing that I’m just absolutely delighted by is the number of lawyers who’ve come forward to me in the past week and said ‘yup, I’ll help. Let me know what you want me to do’. There’s probably no payment in it for them, so that’s been really encouraging.

Can you tell me a little bit more about the triaging system? What happens when someone first gets in touch?

I have first contact with everybody. So to those who are still waiting to hear from me: please be patient, I will get back to you. If it’s a story that we’re going to follow – and not everybody wants that – then the work will go to the team that I’m leading. Everybody is offered the help that they feel they need, it’s their choice. For example, if you had somebody who came forward with quite a serious complaint and needed quite immediate help, the sexual assault support services generally work by referral from the police so you can go that way.

I’ve also had confirmation in the last few days from nationwide sexual violence support groups, who have given me a regional contact person in each district. So if you’re calling from Hamilton, then we’ll be able to put you in contact directly with the people down there. I’ve been in touch with the Human Rights Commission as well – you can lay a complaint with them or through employment relations. There are various options for people depending on what’s appropriate for them. As I said, some of them just wanted to tell their stories to someone.

And so as the first point of contact for all of this, how are you dealing with that personally?

It’s slow going and some of it is horrific and very affecting. There’s a couple of big stories that we’ll be following where the emails cover four or five pages. Those are really hard to read, but I’m a survivor myself so I can relate. With the stories that we are able to take forward, the hard work begins and we’ll have to start our very rigorous process. We won’t print anything and we can’t print anything without having gone through the strictest of processes because of the way defamation law in New Zealand works.

Is it a source of frustration that an eager public might not understand the difference between American and New Zealand defamation laws?

They are very different. Our defamation laws are quite similar to Australia though, so that’s why I’ve been following Tracey Spicer’s process very carefully. You have to make sure that you cross check everything. You can’t go to print in this country or in Australia without having done the mahi properly. And as for all these accusations of some kind of witch-hunt – a witch hunt is a persecution of women, not men by women.

Having the witches do the witch-hunting is just… very confused

I know, I know, people are mangling their metaphors badly, but that’s a minor thing. We can’t afford to operate like that, so all the people talking about innuendo and rumour and false accusations simply haven’t done their reading.

I suppose it’s the same ballpark as one of your ex-colleagues who said #MeTooNZ was clickbait and tabloid journalism?

Right back at him. I think that was just about the worst kind of clickbait journalism. I read that column reluctantly – because I had to – and it just didn’t make much sense to me. It wasn’t a coherent argument so I found it pretty easy to just dismiss it and move on. If people really think that I would put myself in the firing line like this to make clickbait… Obviously they’ve never been a woman on the internet – you would never put yourself in this position unless you believe in the cause.

You’ve had a lot of support but there’s still that strain of toxic, knee jerk reactions. Where do you think that has come from? Is it fear?

Some have tried to frame it as if they’re afraid it might be them we’re coming for. That’s not the kind of fear we’re talking about here, this reaction is coming from a deeply entrenched fear of change.

And it shouldn’t affect these people if they’ve done nothing wrong. That’s what I don’t understand – why wouldn’t you be in support of this?

I can’t understand it either, that’s why I don’t find their arguments coherent. Because you wouldn’t support somebody who had perpetrated other forms of violence. Surely you wouldn’t support somebody who perpetrated violent assault or murder, you know? It shows that people still don’t really think that sexual assault or harassment is a thing. I can assure them it is.

There is also the assumption there that only women are the victims.

I need to talk to that. Not only have I been contacted by quite a few men already, but the person in my wider whānau who has been worst affected by this is a young man. He had to leave his job and his entire career and has not worked since. This is an accomplished young man who was going places, and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that it is ruining his life. So it’s mainly a woman’s problem, but not always.

It seems more and more like people working on these stories are abandoning traditional outlet divides to work towards the greater goal here, do you feel something shifting in journalism?

I feel that very strongly. Stuff has made it clear to me that they’re most interested in partnering with others on this. Every journalist who’s been working on stories like this, that I’ve spoken to, doesn’t care where the stories are carried. The work is not in who’s publishing it. I think most of us working on stories like these at the moment understand that. I haven’t talked to anybody who is involved in any of these initiatives who hasn’t said ‘yay, let’s go, let’s get these stories out there in the hope that we can shape some long term change’. There is a real connection and camaraderie across all of the journalists I’ve spoken to and it’s broken down all of those platform rivalries.

What would you say to people reading this who might have their own stories that they’ve never told before?

I would say that, at the very least, you’re welcome to contact me if you need help. Obviously we won’t be able to follow up on everybody’s story. Most of the stories that we follow through with will need that element of corroboration and perhaps other witnesses or other complainants who’ve been subject to similar behaviour in the same workplace. I don’t want to minimise anybody’s experiences, but I have to tell you there are some serious stories coming in, with big companies and organisations where multiple people were affected.

If anybody’s still on the fence about how we’re going to conduct this, this isn’t a witch hunt, as badly as that phrase is being gendered and misused. This investigation is unlikely to sweep in people who have pinched a bum or made a bad inappropriate joke. The cases that have come in already are way too serious for that. All I ask is that people give us a chance to prove that we are striving to conduct this in the most careful manner that we can.

I’ve got a bit of a knot in my stomach, to be honest with you, but that’s never stopped me before.


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