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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