An ‘open secret’ is a strange term when you think about it. But it’s also an accurate way to describe the level of sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination in many parts of the legal profession in New Zealand. In the wake of the Russell McVeagh allegations, I set up an anonymous blog to enable women and men to share their own stories, in their own words.
I’ve received over 80 posts in five days and hundreds of emails and messages of support from both women and men. It’s showed me that the Russell McVeagh allegations are only the tip of the iceberg in the wider profession and that there is a real need for people to have an outlet to vent their anger, frustration, sadness, but also hope that things can change. I want to share some of them here, as well as my own words.
“A senior lecturer at the law school I attended was well known for making female students uncomfortable. I saw him after the course had ended in a cafe one day and he beckoned me over. He gave me a hug which went on for an uncomfortably long time. He then said to me that he could do this now that he was no longer my lecturer and that I looked "delicious" from the other side of the room. I was mortified. When I told my male colleagues they just laughed and thought it was a bit of fun. They simply don't understand that speaking up or challenging this behavior could ruin your career. There is a huge power imbalance by young people in the profession and their seniors take full advantage of this. I have since stopped practising." Female, 26 - 35
There are lots of barriers to exposing these kinds of issues in any profession. I work as a independent government contractor researching victims of reported and unreported crime. An anonymous blog is one way to provide an avenue of speech for victims: people don’t have to worry about their employer finding out and it having negative implications for their reputation and career. They don’t have to endure the trauma and stress that comes with going public. They can just lay it all bare. The anonymity also means allegations aren’t subject to the same level of interrogation they would face in, say, a court system. It’s a cathartic process rather than a legal process—and the offenders themselves aren’t named, so there is nothing to gain from a so-called ‘witch hunt’ or false allegation.
"Too many to list... constantly having my looks be brought up, inappropriate questions about my sex life / boyfriends. Soooo many "jokes" and rude stuff. Every girl being ranked by a "number". Being belittled in-front of clients. Being told the way I speak was "girly". Being told that being attractive meant I wouldn't be taken seriously. Being touched and awful things said to me. So sad that many young women have to go through this." Female, 18 - 25
I also set up the blog as a way to gather evidence of the scale of the problem so that everyone in the legal profession - particularly those in senior positions - understand what the issues are, what people are going through and the effect it has on them.
And let’s not forget the perpetrators themselves – I hope they read the blog, recognise themselves in some of the accounts and realise that their time is well and truly up. Many people have contacted me to say they now feel empowered to lay formal complaints to their employer, the media or the Police.
“In my second year I was told by a male solicitor, 8 years my senior, that if I did not have sex with him, he would tell everyone that I had anyway, so I may as well just do it. He made this threat numerous times. The male senior also said that he had a very close relationship with my (male) boss and that the boss would believe anything the senior said about the work that I did. Before I left the firm, I told three of the partners. They said, "We want you to know that we provide a safe working environment". I know that the male solicitor has been similarly intimidating to at least one other female junior. He is still practising law." Female, 18 - 25
To anyone who is thinking about setting up anonymous blogs for other professions or contexts: it’s important that you keep the names of the people who post and the people they are accusing confidential. It’s a blog, not a courtroom. You can’t fact check what people are posting so if you name an alleged perpetrator there is the risk of defamation. You may also put the safety, career or reputation of the person who posted the allegation at risk.
My only hope at this stage is that more men get involved, whether it be to share their own experiences, what they’ve witnessed, or just messages of support. I know there are a lot of great men in the legal profession and this is a tough conversation that both genders need to be involved in.
"At a client function, a partner made a comment about a young woman who worked with us, after she left the room: "What does someone have to do to get a blow job from X around here?" Client was present, as were other men from the team." Male, 26 - 35
The blog is going to remain live for around a month then I am going to collate all the posts and provide these to the New Zealand Law Society. I’ll also publish a summary of the trends emerging from the posts for employers and universities.
"It can start at law school. A law lecturer who had been mentoring me told me that he was in love with me. I told him that it wasn't okay...but he kept trying to go under the table with it. He was many years older than me. That really knocked my confidence, and since then it's made me apprehensive to visit lecturers in their office hours for help, or have anything to do with a male university lecturers. I really wish that had never happened." Female, 18 - 25
This is just the start of New Zealand’s #metoo movement. We have a long road to go, but we are taking the first steps.
To celebrate International Women's Day, VICELAND NZ is extending the moment to last the entire week. From March 5-12 we're celebrating all our best female hosted content—including STATES OF UNDRESS, WOMEN, RISE, SLUTEVER and more—available on Sky Channel 13 and SKY On Demand.