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NZ’s failure on sexual misconduct is much, much bigger than any one case

From State Services to Russell McVeagh, from the Human Rights Commission to the Labour Party, a clear pattern emerges in sexual harassment stories across NZ, and it reveals we just don’t take the issue seriously, argues Catriona MacLennan.

Sexual harassment is still not regarded a serious issue in Aotearoa.

That is what we have learned since 2014, as a pattern of inadequate responses to harassment has played out in the public and media spotlight.

In November 2014, then-Canterbury Earthquake recovery Authority Chief Executive Roger Sutton was permitted to stand alongside top state sector bosses Iain Rennie and Andrew Kibbelwhite at a press conference as it was announced that Sutton had resigned from his job.

Sutton was given a platform to speak to the media and trivialise his actions. Kibblewhite embraced Sutton. Rennie praised him. Sutton’s wife gave emotional on-camera interviews.

I knew as soon as I heard the first story about the resignation that the way it was being portrayed in the media was inaccurate: if the media view of events had been correct, Sutton would not have resigned.

But it took a couple of days for more accurate details to emerge, during which time Sutton was portrayed as the charming victim of heavy-handed complaints.

The complainant, meanwhile, was publicly vilified and unable to walk down the street.

And, to cap it all, we discovered that the State Services Commission itself did not have adequate procedures in place to deal with sexual harassment.

In 2015, we learned of former Prime Minister John Key’s repeated pulling of a waitress’s pony tail. Despite the woman’s ongoing requests for the behaviour to cease and her obvious distress, Mr Key insisted that his behaviour was just “horsing around” and “sort of practical jokes.”

Complaints of sexual harassment in the military have been made over many years. The New Zealand Defence Force in 2016 launched Operation RESPECT to tackle such behaviours, but women to this day continue to come forward to speak about their complaints being inadequately handled.

In February this year, the Human Rights Commission – which is itself supposed to deal with sexual harassment complaints – was revealed to have botched its response to a complaint within the commission.

In the same month, sexual harassment and assault at law firm Russell McVeagh were publicly revealed, with the firm’s reaction being widely – and justifiably –criticised for its inadequacy.

Russell McVeagh subsequently announced that it had implemented a zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment, but refused to state when this had been introduced.

Wouldn’t you expect a law firm to have had a clear policy since the very day it was established?

The New Zealand Law Society has also been criticised for its handling of the Russell McVeagh revelations. In March, the Law Society announced that it was establishing a working group to consider what improvements could be made to enable better reporting of harassment in the legal profession.

This week, the Labour Party has been under the microscope as reports emerged of sexual assault at a camp for young people.

There are five common threads running through all these cases.

  • Many employers and other organisations do not have proper procedures for dealing with sexual harassment. It is difficult to put this down to anything other than them not considering sexual harassment to be important. I can guarantee that all of the above organisations have robust procedures for dealing with, for example, theft and would know exactly what to do if money disappeared;
  • The immediate response of a majority of organisations is to downplay sexual harassment and assault, minimising and trivialising it. This is because the key concern of those to whom sexual harassment is reported is with protecting the organisation, rather than supporting the victims;
  • Sexual harassment – like rape, domestic violence, the gender pay gap and other issues – is pigeon-holed as a “women’s issue”. This means that women are regarded as being responsible for solving it. Men are the perpetrators, but calling sexual harassment a “women’s issue” gives men a get-out-of-jail-free card. Not a single male lawyer has spoken out about sexual harassment in the legal profession. They have – gutlessly –sat by and left it to women to speak;
  • The role of the media is incredibly important. It seems that it is only when journalists do stories about sexual harassment that employers are forced to deal with it properly;
  • It is the victims who continue to pay the heaviest price. In addition to dealing with the behaviour to which they are subjected, they are forced to weigh up the likely impact on their careers of seeking justice for what they have endured.

As a result of the latest stories, there will be reviews and new procedures.

But, fundamentally, nothing will change.

That is because the root cause of sexual harassment is power.

In our society, it is middle-class, Pākehā males who hold power.

In their heart of hearts, they view women as inferior. They are used to women in their lives deferring to them.

The position is even worse for non-Pākehā women and women with disabilities.

They suffer double or treble discrimination.

Until we not only tackle but actually solve the power imbalance, Pākehā males will continue to believe that women’s bodies are theirs for the taking – whether it is in the workplace or elsewhere.

When the men who sexually harass young women in law firms look at female interns, they don’t see lawyers.

They see women, and their lives have taught them to have a sense of entitlement towards women.

They need to start seeing lawyers, just as in every single workplace men need to start regarding women as colleagues, rather than as members of a subservient gender.


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