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The “open secret”: when men do nothing

In an independent investigation by a former inspector general of intelligence and security, former High Court judge Dyson Heydon has been found to have sexually harassed six junior court staff during his period on the bench.

More stories of Heydon’s predatory behaviour are coming to light as I write this piece.

Law Society of Australia president Pauline Wright commented after the revelations that harassment is pervasive in the legal profession. In 2019, the International Bar Association found that one in four women had been harassed in their workplace.

Heydon’s sexual impropriety has been acknowledged as an open secret in legal circles. Which might cause one to wonder about the integrity of a profession dedicated to upholding the law, that protects men who transgress that law.

It really is the same old never-ending story. In 2015, surgeon Dr Caroline Tan found her career derailed after she spoke up about being sexual harassed by a colleague. The prevalence of harassment in medicine is not known, however, it is considered sufficiently serious to cause problems for women across the profession. It is likely an “open secret” in that profession as well.

The only way sexual harassment is called out is when victims speak up. We are dependent on traumatised women putting themselves at further risk to tell us what is going on.

Women who disclosed are frequently disbelieved, especially if the man involved is a powerful figure. Women are blamed, both for the abuse and for disclosing it. Women lose their jobs or promotions. Women can be branded as troublemakers or worse, as sexually problematic in the workplace. It isn’t the perpetrators who are subjected to punishment, retribution and shunning. It is the victims. Women are frequently left without sufficient support and face inadequate complaints processes. Women can be further traumatised by the reactions of others, and the all too real fear of losing their livelihoods.

This is far too much responsibility to put on women in these situations. It is beyond appalling that traumatised women are the only ones who disclose these behaviours, and the only ones who name the men who indulge in them.

If the harassment is an “open secret,” as has been confirmed in the case of Heydon by accounts from senior lawyers, men who are in on this “secret” are enabling and protecting the perpetrator. Men who know this secret and stay silent are signalling their willingness to let this behaviour continue. If men stay silent, women can assume they agree with the behaviour. Women can assume that they will receive little assistance if they approach a man with their story.

There is absolutely no doubt that sexual harassment can only happen within a structure that tolerates and enables it. That would appear to be practically every institution and workplace in the country where men are employed.

Men in the workplace must be aware that sexual harassment is taking place. They must hear about it, see it, and suspect it. And yet, they do nothing. As angry and disgusted as we might be at the behaviour of one individual, he could not continue in that behaviour without the enabling silence of other men. It’s time we started demanding of men, why didn’t you say something? It’s time we started holding men responsible for the behaviour of other men they do nothing to prevent.

Men harass women because they can and one of the reasons they can is because other men let them. It’s called complicit assent. Men are complicit in a culture that encourages the sexual harassment of women. Men who are complicit betray women, and abandon their ethics. The wide-spread harassment of women will not substantially change until men step up.

The careers of six promising women lawyers have been derailed by the direct action of one man, and the tolerance and complicity of that action by every other man who knew about it. In these situations, there is no such thing as an innocent bystander. Men need to realise they are culpable in their silence.

Not all men are sexual abusers and harassers. But as long as they don’t speak up, all men are responsible for their complicity with those who do abuse and harass in their workplaces. It’s time to hold men accountable for that complicity, and remind them that failing to speak up makes them assenters. It’s way beyond time to demand that men start taking responsibility for the actions of other men. Way beyond time.

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23 comments

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  1. Vikingduk

    Yes.

  2. Jack Cade

    I love this! The arsehole who enjoyed slamming unions.
    I F#CKINGWELL LOVE IT!!
    That’s called a tmesis, by the way.
    And absofckinglutely appropriate.

  3. Phil Pryor

    Jack Purple Cade is keen to blow off steam about this extreme turd and fraud, a law officer, who like so many, treats it with distain, contempt, irrelevance as the blood surges to the sausage of wilful drives. With absolute shit in Australian public life, in politics, media, corporations, law and sport evils, we are, as Jack so quietly suggested, Furrily Thucked. Ordinary honest folk will be as extinct soon as the Tassie Tiger, poor bastards.

  4. New England Cocky

    @Phil Pryor: Now, now Phil you are just jealous that Jack Cade succinctly expressed sentiments coinciding with your own but in fewer words. I guess he did that to allow you to demonstrate your wonderfully accurate and complete descriptions of the politicians we love to hate.

  5. New England Cocky

    The administration justice in NSW has been deliberately undermined by both major parties making appointments to legal bodies of cronies holding paper qualifications but lacking ability or experience in the law. Look after the mates and the law will look after itself.

    But things do not work that way in the law, or at least, should not work that way.

    In a recent matter before the Sydney Local Court (Motor Vehicles) three assessors and a District Court judge failed to read the papers and so failed to see that the contract relied upon by the plaintiff was void ab initio and so unenforceable. Perhaps the adage that “Only Lawyers make money in Courts” has more truth to it than many would believe.

  6. Kidney Bean

    Looking to John Howard and Tony Abbot for character references.

  7. Florence

    Why doesn’t the man just apologize for inappropriate behavior. At seventy & retired he has nothing to lose. I suspect the women are only taking action because he has not. Now the matter will go on for years. Good chance he will be convicted.

  8. Florence

    Why doesn’t the man just apologize for inappropriate behavior. At seventy & retired he has nothing to lose. I suspect the women are only taking action because he has not. Now the matter will go on for years. Good chance he will be convicted.

    He did give Abbott a reference that allowed him go to Oxford on a scholarship.

  9. Matters Not

    Re:

    In these situations, there is no such thing as an innocent bystander.

    The implication being that there can be innocent bystanders in other situations. On wonders accordingly whether that implied Principle extends to suspected child abuse. And what legal protections are available re defamation – particularly when the Law Society of Australia president Pauline Wright commented after the revelations that harassment is pervasive in the legal profession. Should Pauline Wright be held accountable? Should she be called on to ‘come clean’? To tell all? Or is she just relying on hearsay? Just spreading gossip? Kicking him while he’s down?

    For this particular man, the claims must be devastating. His worst nightmare. A public shaming. So far to fall. And now Shorten’s putting the boot in with a call to strip him of his ‘honours’. Hope he’s on a suicide watch.

  10. Neil

    All I can say is, I don’t fancy his chances in prison. Unfortunately, products of the legal system aren’t always so forgiving.

  11. Harry Lime

    What is it about the Liar’s party that is a repetitive circle of nineteenth century attitudes,born to rule, above the law,and seemingly reverting to medieval scholasticism? (See:Dan F-ckwit Tehan.) Datsun Hilux, another captain’s pick by “You bet I are,you bet you am”,Mad Monk.The latest and ,so far, the most egregious insult,The Liar from the Shire,taking us to unplumbed depths.
    If anyone had the balls to institute a serious federal ICAC,we’d have to build a series of new gulags,Eh,Spud?

  12. Phil

    At least when I gave my diatribe on Pell at least he was found guilty. I was accused of what was it? Oh that’s right, contempt of court. But Dyson has been found guilty of what? Wow! A quick trial and shoot him in the morning.

  13. Jack Cade

    The headline for this article suggests that he had a long- established reputation for groping, dating back, according to the Age today, to his days at Oxford.
    He also had a reputation for judgmental bias against women, which is probably why the splay-footed reptilian former PM liked him so much. And he certainly gave the Coalition value for money in his attitude to unions.
    We deride the US legal system for the way it is stacked politically, but our own system is little better, going back as far as the bias shown by Barwick and his ilk.

  14. Dave G.

    Just a thought,I wonder if some of his approaches to women was successful,was there a career advancement promised & carried out?Will those hypothetical ladies now come forward to condem him?Just a thought.

  15. Terence

    I’m not so sure that I agree with the substance of this article – “It’s time we started holding men responsible for the behaviour of other men they do nothing to prevent.”

    It’s not to say that this bad behaviour should continue but to suggest that holding (in this case) men responsible is shooting the messenger. Lets face it, you could change the circumstances of this case and substitute any wrongdoing in the work place and the outcome would be the same.

    Examples

    Witness K
    Witness J
    AFP raids on journalists
    Take your pick of political corruption
    Take your pick of corporate corruption
    [Insert here]

    There would be numerous people in these cases who knew and did nothing. So what do you propose, we hold all of them responsible too? And what would that look like?

    The fact is I have seen harassment in the workplace (both sides) and yes I have not spoken up for one reason or another. I have made sure I don’t participate and I have at times politely said “you can’t say/do that” but I also know that if I created waves then my career could take a hit or even worse, I would be out of a job. So isn’t this the problem? We have a system that punishes people standing up or blowing the whistle. As harsh as this sounds, I have a family to look after and my number one priority is the welfare of my children, not the welfare of a work colleague. I am a single dad I need to make sure that pay check comes in each fortnight. I’ll guarantee that I’m not Robinson Crusoe when it comes to having to deal with similar situations/dilemmas. My question to you is will you be responsible for the financial/mental/physical welfare of those men/women who do speak up and enviably get right royally f*%ked over for doing so? I’ve seen it happen and it isn’t pretty. I even had to walk from a job because of ethics, however I was advised by several people not to make an official complaint to the supposedly independent [insert huge belly laugh here] anti corruption commission because of the power this person had. I was told in no uncertain terms that my life would not be worth living, so I took the hush money and got on with my life. Am I proud? No but what good would I be to my children if I was mentally/physically/financially broken? Again isn’t this the problem? Everyone knows the house always wins.

    The fact is that cases like this will continue not because men don’t speak up but because the ruling class (including politicians) have a vested interest in creating/maintaining a system which enables things like this to be swept under the carpet because they have the power to protect their mate by making the lives of people with morals a living hell.

  16. Terence

    P.S. Everyone is behind you with their support until you ask them to sign an affidavit or be a witness in court.

    Funny that.

  17. marty

    Unfortunately i feel you are right Terrence, i too have tried to stand up for whats right in the work place only to be royally (quietly) f#cked over for doing so.All the corporate WHS training MUST be adhered to for everybody’s good until it costs money or starts to effect the favorite people or the people up the management ladder,then it strangely doesn’t seem so important anymore.Until the other 90% realize that more than anything this is a class struggle and while we are fighting for race and gender equality, its all good for the ruling class….eat the f#cking rich….

  18. leefe

    Thanks Terrence. I’m sure the next person to be sexually harassed at work will take comfort from your insistence that they’re on their own.
    And so, the problem continues; for as long as there are people making excuses to not step up and so something about it.

  19. Jack Cade

    Leefe

    That is a bit unfair. A woman who complains risks having her life scrutinised in court and sometimes in public.
    A serial male shagger is a rake, and more likely admired than censured.
    A serial female shagger is a slut.
    But ‘sluts’ have the right to choose who they allow to grope them.
    Society is not even-handed in its opinions of the sexual activities of the separate genders.
    Remember what happened to Lewinsky. People snigger at her mention. Nobody sniggers at Bill Clinton.

  20. Terence

    Thanks leefe for your sermon from the Rainbow and Cupcake Ivory Tower. I see you didn’t address the actual issue which I raised, just sanctimoniously shot the messenger who applies the real world to your utopia.

    So tell me leefe, have you actually been in any of the situations that I described? Have you ever had your career/life threatened because you decided to take a stance? Have you ever lied in bed, night after night for months thinking about your kids future because of such threats? Because guess what I have and the thing that helped me make sense of it all was that people with their holier than thou view of the world were no better than the bullies that they complained about. There were all tough with their words but when it come time to step up and put something in writing, they were as weak as p*ss, happy for me to take the bullet for THEIR righteousness.

    There are plenty of people that know right from wrong but they also know what happens to whistleblowers and people who stand up against the system. Just ask Richard Boyle, Witness J and K. I bet you and your moralistic brethren haven’t taken a single ounce of responsibility for the plight they now face because they took a stance. Have you pledged any monetary support for their legal costs? I don’t judge people who do or don’t take a stance because everyone is different and everyone’s circumstances are different. It’s a hard and lonely road and in the end the only person you can rely on is yourself. It happened to me over 10 years ago and it was bad then, now we have a system even more stacked against whistle blowers. FFS we have a system where a Dr can be jailed for 2 years for speaking out about s*xual abuse of kids held in offshore detention. Just let that sink in for a second.

    Maybe you can go back and have a think about my post and try again. How about providing a solution to the real problem which is the system is stacked against people who want to do the right thing because those with the power can and usually will destroy anyone who threatens their place on the greasy pole. Because when you address that, then you are probably likely to get more people to stand up for what is right knowing that the system will support THEM, not the criminal.

  21. leefe

    Terence:
    Yes, I have. I’ve had a career first threatened and then derailed because I spoke up about what was happening to others and to myself. I’ve complained time and time again about workplace bullying to see nothing done until the bully had a go at – not any of the women of course – but at our male foreman. That was what got him fired, not years of verbal abuse directed at every female worker on the shop floor. I gave up on a Public Service career after five years of abuse, bullying, minimisation, marginalisation and sexual harassment.

    I give what I can spare from a very limited budget for many causes, including refugee legal assistance, Aboriginal legal aid, environmental activism and, yeah, Witness K. You don’t know me so it’;s a bit silly to insist that I could not possibly have done anything practical to try to help right the many wrongs in this country.

    Jack Cade:
    I am well aware of what happens when people speak out. I know what the treatment they get from the media, from the general public, and in court.

    In other words, been there, done that, still fighting the same old shit, and part of the reason we are still fighting it is because too many people turn their backs and put themselves first.

    Both of you and anyone else who gives a rat’s: This is not theoretical for me. So I can do without the lectures.
    In other words, been there, done that, still fighting the same old shit, and part of the reason we are still fighting it is because too many people turn their backs and put themselves first.
    Witnesses who speak out do not deal with what the victims do. Because they don’t have to live with what the abuser did.
    People are saying, right now,that it isn’t enough to be non-racist, we need to be anti-racist. Guess what? It’s not enough to be non-sexist. We all need to be anti-sexist too. That is the only way to create change.

  22. Terence

    leefe – I’m sorry to hear that you had to deal with that and I know what you are saying about the public service.

    I’m not sure I quite agree with your statement that witnesses/whistleblowers don’t have to deal with what the victims do. I’m not down playing what you went through, just giving you the view from a whistleblower’s perspective that they cop abuse/threats too, it might be different type of abuse but it’s still abuse and it still has a major impact on your physical/mental well being. I guess I count myself lucky that I had some really good people around me at the time who looked out for me to make sure I didn’t hit rock bottom.

    The other thing I tried to point out is that, for me at least, I wasn’t putting myself first, I was putting my children first. If I wasn’t a single dad with responsibilities, maybe I might have acted differently. It’s all academic now I guess.

    Thank you for the discussion and I guess we will have to agree to disagree. I think that the system needs to change where people need to feel secure to be able to speak up and not live in fear of doing the right thing. It’s no accident that the system has constantly evolved to make it easier and easier for the powerful to silence dissent and destroy whistleblower’s lives.

  23. Josephus

    A heartfelt and frank discussion , for which thanks to all.
    My ha’pennyworth is to say that it is a really hard decision to complain about negligence or semi- threats from a nursing home, because an intelligent but mentally ill person is going mad after months of being locked up to a degree even murderers do not have to endure, and who without incident reports ie evidence probably did assault a person, a fact which, if true, he or she has no memory of whatsoever.
    The plague makes lock up in institutions necessary no doubt, but every person I have asked admits that to be confined to a gated place for months on end with no prospect of outings and little family contact will be aggressive, wish for suicide, have recourse to ongoing compensatory hallucinations. I am afraid to speak out, yet speak out I must. What will be the result?

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