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Sexual harassment in the NZ legal workplace

30 November 2017 - By A New Zealand Lawyer

The author of the following article is anonymous. While LawTalk has a policy of identifying the author of each article, we fully respect her reasons for anonymity: “Although I think these are important experiences to speak out about, I am not prepared to endure the attention that putting my name to it would bring. Nor do I wish to humiliate the men involved or invite speculation about who they might be.”

A man in a suit

There has been a lot of talk in recent weeks about the harassment that many women have to endure in the course of pursuing their careers – in acting, politics, IT, and the professions. We know, of course, that women also endure sexual harassment in the legal profession here in New Zealand. In this article, I want to outline two comparatively minor but nonetheless very difficult incidents which I experienced as a young lawyer. I am doing this in the belief that the more that people talk about these things – even if as here, anonymously – the better people will understand how sexual harassment happens and what we can do to prevent it.

Both incidents of sexual harassment which I experienced followed an eerily similar pattern. In the first case a very senior lawyer (Man 1) asked if I could come in on the weekend to work with him on a file. In the second case a similarly senior man (Man 2) invited me to meet with him to discuss the prospect of working with him on something important. In the first case, I was 22 and in the second I was 24.

The men in question were in their sixties. In both instances, at the very last minute. I received messages letting me know that the meetings would be taking place at their houses. These were not requests; I was simply being informed about what was happening. I turned up to the meeting with Man 1 to discover that his wife was away for the weekend – and that he had booked us a table for lunch at his favourite cafe. In fact, the whole event was essentially a date. It was five hours before I managed to extricate myself during which time we did just 45 minutes of work.

Man 2 had no wife to dispense with but, since the meeting was at 5pm, he had poured me a glass of wine and started making dinner for us both by the time I had arrived. I left in the dark at 10pm, having had it made very clear to me (a) that Man 2 was immensely wealthy, and (b) that I would be very welcome to become his mistress.

In one sense this is no big deal; just a couple of optimistic old boys trying when they shouldn’t. I didn’t feel unsafe during either of these ‘dates’ and had previously liked and got on well with both men. But I had never given an iota of an indication that I was romantically interested in either of them and given that each was old enough to be my grandfather you’d have thought that they’d have needed some pretty clear encouragement to assume that I was. I emerged from both encounters feeling entrapped. I had been lured under false pretences into these men’s homes and into fake romantic encounters I had never agreed to. I resented the imposition on my time and my emotional equilibrium.

Things didn’t stop there

And unfortunately, things didn’t stop there. From their perspective these encounters were a great success. I’d stayed for lunch/dinner. I’d engaged in interesting conversation and generally done what was expected of me. I’d got away but only as early as it was polite to do so. Unlike me, they didn’t stop to ask themselves what the hell a young woman was supposed to do when a man who held her career in the palm of his hand put her in a position like that.

So, of course, they asked me out again. Man 2 wanted to discuss work over lunch at a restaurant. I went but immediately regretted it so the next time I tried the brush off. I said I was busy and didn’t suggest an alternative time. “When are you free then?” I delayed answering for ten days and then upped the ante: “I am not really free at all at the moment. I am very busy at work for the next couple of months”. “When will you be free again then?” Clearly he was not going to take a hint. Man 1 was similarly persistent only his declarations were more emotional. It turned out he was in love with me, kept thinking about me, had fallen for me in a way he couldn’t explain and which made him feel like a fool. He would come into my office all the time, tried to move me away from my peers and into his part of the building; told me that he had wanted to kiss me.

I didn’t know what to do

At this point, in both cases, things got a bit out of control. I just didn’t know what to do.

With Man 2, I had tried the standard polite ‘no’ techniques. And there was an important decision being made about my career that I had every reason to think that he was involved in. Was there a risk that he would take things out on me if l rejected him? He was beginning to look rather fond of getting what he wanted. Should I just keep going out to lunch with him until the decision was made? Should I leave town for a bit? Should I invent a boyfriend? Or should I do as my friends advised and just tell him directly to go away?

The situation with Man 1 was even more difficult. He was there every day when I went to work. He too had immense power over my future career. People were gossiping about me in the office. (An older woman I went to for support simply went around telling some of the secretaries about it.) And I believed Man 1 when he said that he had fallen for me. What would a heartbroken older suitor do if his young love interest overtly rejected him? I had no idea. What’s more, I was young and nice and didn’t want to crush him.

In the end, in both cases, I took my friends’ advice and pressed the nuclear button. Both men received letters telling them politely but firmly that I did not wish to go out with them. Man 1 was contrite and apologetic but resumed the same behaviour a few months later. It ended when I changed jobs. Man 2 got peeved. In fact, despite having previously been a mentor and supporter of my work, he refused to talk to me for two years. He sent a message via a colleague that I had overreacted, that I had misread the situation, that there are ways of communicating these things politely (like saying you’re busy for the next two months perhaps... ?). He finally thawed when I – weakly, I know – sent a message via the same friend saying that I accepted that I had been a bit heavy handed. But in neither case was the mentoring, supportive work relationship restored. How could it be?

My health and work suffered

I realise that all this is nothing compared to the sexual harassment and abuse that many women endure in their professional and personal lives. But part of the point I want to make here is that even these minor incidents can have a serious effect on women’s work and personal lives. In both cases, my health and work suffered as a result of the stress – particularly in the case of Man 1 who was always in the office. In both cases, I lost an important mentor because they overstepped the line. Both cases made me wary of trusting men who professed to admire my work in the future. And this made me feel vain and inadequate in equal measure; vain because I felt I was flattering myself into thinking that men at work kept fancying me and inadequate because I didn’t get the usual sense of affirmation if a man did express an interest in my work. And both cases made me doubt my ability to handle myself in the world. It took me years to realise that what went on here was sexual harassment. I even went to a counsellor to learn what I was doing to attract this kind of attention. It didn’t work. It only stopped when I got a boyfriend who was well-known amongst the legal community. It seems it isn’t form to hit on another male lawyer’s girlfriend. And of course there is nothing like age and seniority to discourage unwanted romantic attention...

What might people take from this?

So what is it that I am hoping people might take from this? First of all, if you are reading this and think that you might have treated a male or female colleague like this – ie, used them to fulfil some emotional or sexual desire of yours (whether overtly or not) – then don’t do it again. Recognise the power that comes with even a little bit of seniority and make sure that you don’t abuse it – wittingly or unwittingly. Do not use work pretences to get people into your lair or to get into theirs. This is not harmless behaviour even if all you do while they’re there is dream or delude yourself. If the young lawyer in the office really does want you for their sugar daddy you will have to wait until he or she propositions you – directly.

My second hope is that men reading this will get a bit more of a sense of the kind of difficulties female lawyers sometimes encounter in the workplace. I don’t talk about this stuff openly; most women who experience these things have learnt it is not in their interests to do so. But when we do try to tell you that we might have had a rougher road to tread than our male colleagues, when we talk about sexism, and ask for support from our colleagues and institutions, then please be willing to listen. The landmines hidden on our career paths aren’t always easy for others to see.

Last updated on the 1st December 2017