Virginia Trioli is host of Mornings on ABC Radio Melbourne, and was a founding co-anchor of ABC TV’s News Breakfast. Generation F: Why We Still Struggle With Sex and Power (Simon & Schuster, $25) is an update of her 1996 book, Generation F, and is out 15 November 2019.
It was a table for two, tucked down the back of a discreet and exclusive restaurant perched on a tall hotel building, floating high above the shimmering sapphire of Sydney. Walking in to meet this imposing Australian politician for lunch, I faltered for a moment: Why were we here? Even getting to the entrance of this hushed and gleaming place had felt like a succession of doors closing behind me and the rest of the world. It was like going into the lair of a Bond villain.
He was already seated and didn’t get up. Wine was poured, chewy political gossip was served. This man was pompous and vain as only one whose power is waning can be – he was far too eager to show that he knew more than I might think. It was the mid-1990s, and the conversation moved to then US President Bill Clinton, and a female acquaintance who had just met him in Washington. He leaned forward, a half-smile: “She said that she never really understood his whole charisma thing until she met him, but when she did she said she just wanted to fall to her knees and open her mouth … you know what I mean?”
Why were we here? In my profession you simply can’t ever be lost for words; you have to come up with something. In my memory I simply made stammering noises, but surely I was a little more put together than that. This wasn’t my first trip to maybe-she’ll-go-down-on-me land. And we were sitting here in dazzling daylight with waiters all around. So why did I feel so scared? Me? A senior journalist with a name and reputation? Why did I want to grab my bag and flee?
The conversation rolled awkwardly backwards and forwards between us for a while as he continued to drop in oblique sexual references and I kept dragging things back to the politically mundane. Then the strangest but also most banal thing happened: I just decided I’d had enough. I was going to burn this contact; forget about any useful intelligence he might provide me into the future and go home. This whole little scene was bullshit: it was miserably uncomfortable for me while clearly hugely enjoyable for him. Screw that.
I thanked him for seeing me, pushed my chair back, and said I had to go. No explanation why. Now it was his turn for his mouth to swing open. I have never let political contacts pay for me – I always cover my own bill. Not today: this overpriced little show was going to be on him. I left and have never spoken to him again.
In the aftermath of the first waves of #MeToo in 2017, the cry went up very early that men’s lives were being ruined, that accusations were being flung like confetti and even the most “minor” transgressions were being revealed to devastating effect. It’s been an effective counter-strategy used by those hoping to discredit an international movement that was daily gaining ground. Except it isn’t what either a woman’s lifetime of experiences or the available evidence shows: the enduring truth is that we keep men’s secrets.
According to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), in the five years to 2018 some 39 per cent of women and, surprisingly, 26 per cent of men experienced workplace sexual harassment. The clear majority of workplace sexual harassment was perpetrated by men: 79 per cent of victims were sexually harassed by one or more males. The numbers are huge, but of all those harassed in those five years only one in five made an official report. In universities the figures are even more alarming: 94 per cent of those harassed on campus, and even more shockingly 84 per cent of those who were assaulted did not report it.
We keep the secrets without even being aware of making the decision. This is the bookend to the truth that we forget more harassment than we remember. By the time the heavy door closed softly behind me on that Sydney lunch, I had unthinkingly decided to keep this man’s secret. I told no one, and have never mentioned it again until telling this story here. It’s one of so many. I got a million of ’em, as the comedian said: they’re just not that funny.
I was a very different person then to who I am today. I’m pretty sure these days I’d tell my lunch companion that I knew exactly what he was doing and I’d give him precisely one chance to knock it off. Or would I? A few months after I gave a widely reported speech in 2018 about a life of working in the media, I was invited to a friend’s house for dinner. In the speech, I’d told a number of #MeToo stories about various men I’d worked with, including one about the senior editor who said to my manager, when that manager was passionately arguing for a pay rise for me, “Are you f…ing her or something?” (I didn’t get the pay rise, by the way.)
We arrived to be told that Mr-Are-You-F…ing-Her-or-Something would be joining us. I’d sometimes wondered if any of the blokes recognised themselves in the stories I told in that speech. (One certainly didn’t: he described my speech as a “powerful contribution to the literature of #MeToo …” I remember being amazed at his amnesia, thinking, “Well, mate – you’d know.”) Was this man going to recognise the memory as one that included him? If I’ve forgotten more harassment than I remember; maybe he has, too?
We walked in, I took one look at his face, and it was miserably clear. He’d read the speech all right, and he remembered, too. He looked like he was going to be sick. We greeted each other warmly, and in that moment, in that extraordinary choice I made to step forward, take his hand and receive the offered peck on the cheek, I took on a time-honoured and self-annihilating role: I was going to keep his secret. We were about to have a lovely night. The food and wine would be superb; we were all dressed up; we deserved a nice evening. As it turned out, like generations before me, I wasn’t going to rock the boat.
But here’s the fascinating thing: I wasn’t even aware of making that choice. The part of me trained in being a survivor, in making nice and laughing it off – that part just kicked in and took over without me even realising it.
We had a lovely night.
We keep men’s secrets, and the aching burden that comes with them, and probably always will – this is the reality check that needs to be made against the impression that 2017 sparked a free-for-all of destructive and baseless accusations from women everywhere. The truth is that people rarely move quickly and without hesitation to make complaints – and if ultimately they do decide to complain, it’s not without grave reflection and often after being seriously advised against it.
The figures show that women, and men, keep their counsel – and they have good reason: “I’ve heard from several women that #MeToo galvanised them to come forward but now they wish they hadn’t – because the cost has been too high: a reputation ruined, job prospects affected.” That’s Kate Jenkins, the sexual discrimination commissioner with the AHRC. She’s been working in discrimination and equal opportunity law since graduating from university. Jenkins says that for her, one of the best things about #MeToo is that by sheer weight of numbers it started to reveal the cost, and the harm, of sexual harassment.
In 2018, the AHRC launched the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces, looking at the prevalence, nature and reporting of harassment, as well as its drivers. As you would expect, it was inundated with public submissions – almost 500 of them – and so many of them read the same way. The submissions reveal harassment of women and some men that made the victims worried, anxious, angry and sick, and they almost all share similar qualities: there’s the stonewalling from personnel and management if they decide to make a complaint; poor if any resolution of the matter (“Just tell him it’s making you uncomfortable”; “Well, nobody else has seen him do this”); and finally, the complainant leaves: unwell and in no fit state to work again.
“You’re socially punished if you complain,” says Jenkins. “If someone speaks up, the response seems to be deny, defend and accuse: rarely to admit and apologise. Many people still don’t report – and that’s because they doubt anything will change and they fear it will just make things worse.”
My ABC colleague Ashleigh Raper has lived the most painful example of this. At a Christmas party in 2016, she says the then NSW opposition leader, the ALP’s Luke Foley, came up behind her and placed his hands down the back of her dress, inside her underpants and rested them on her buttocks. “I completely froze,” she said. The incident was witnessed by another reporter, whom she implored to tell no one. “I just didn’t need that shit in my life,” she tells me.
“I knew that mine would be a very public, high stakes thing; it wasn’t even an option that I would raise it.” But time went on and the secret became a burden. Women were starting to speak out about their harassment, and Raper wondered if she’d done the right thing. “A lot of women were being brave – and I wasn’t.”
Then the matter was taken out of her hands. In a stunning display of political opportunism, the incident was raised two years later by Foley’s political enemies under parliamentary privilege at the state, and then federal, level. It was astonishing: the woman had remained silent, but two blokes decided to speak out “for” her. The revelations forced Raper’s hand and she went public with the story. Foley initially rang her to apologise after the parliamentary allegations, but then he stood down from the leadership, publicly denying the matter and promising to sue. He later withdrew that threat.
In an echo of the eternal hopes of mothers for their competent daughters to just handle it themselves, Raper wryly remembers her progressive mother telling her she should have just “punched him on the nose” but that he didn’t deserve to lose his job. Raper thinks a bit differently: “I was never out to get him, but I did think NSW deserved a better premier than that.”
No one has yet been able to put a price on the cost to business of sexual harassment: reputational damage, loss of key performers, high staff turnover and poor productivity is hard to quantify. The personal cost for the person making an allegation is also incalculable.
Jenkins shares with me the story of a female lawyer who was harassed at work by a colleague years ago. She complained, the matter became excruciatingly difficult to handle in the workplace, she was offered a financial settlement and she left. The man who harassed her is now a global partner and the woman, 20 years later, is not earning anything near the level she would have been if she’d stayed.
I read through some of the submissions to the AHRC’s sexual harassment inquiry at random. There is the woman working with one of the state police forces who was offered massages and repeatedly badgered and called at home by an officer. When she complained to her superiors, she was told to say, “Thank you for the offer of the massage but I will have to decline.” The attention didn’t stop. He told her it was all a joke. She left. There is the PhD student whose supervisor referred to her at a work dinner as “one of my bitches” and threatened to “wipe my arse with you” if her work went in a direction he didn’t approve. She left. One man in an HR consultancy was repeatedly harassed by his female director, who told him stories of sleeping with clients, called him “hot” and rubbed his thighs. He left.
The stories are old, sad and tired. The same old unwanted attention and sexualised behaviour. The same old slow and gutless responses from the managers (“Oh, is he doing that again?”). And the same desultory exit from a place where a worker simply couldn’t get their job done in peace.
But the most powerful shared element of these stories is the one that loops us right back to the 1992 controversy at Melbourne University’s Ormond College. There, two female students went to the police with complaints of sexual assault against the college master, Alan Gregory, following the college’s decision to stand by the master after the two complainants, along with a third woman, said he’d sexually harassed and groped them at a college party. The cases went to court, where one was dismissed; the other was found proven but overturned on appeal. Alan Gregory then resigned.
Helen Garner wrote her 1995 bestseller The First Stone about the furore, polarising readers over whether the students had been right to take their allegations to the law. I responded a year later with my own book, Generation F, in which I argued that the women had the right to use laws that had been created by Garner’s generation of women and feminists exactly in this way.
Nearly 25 years on, it seems we still find it impossible to understand why someone should be so traumatised by something that seems so minor. Admit it – we can read all the studies by all the agencies and still not get it. It’s one of the great failings of our imagination, and perhaps even our shared humanity, that often we can’t put ourselves in another’s place and understand why they weren’t able to be stronger, more resilient, more light-hearted. Why has, say, an unwanted shoulder massage left them broken, and unable to work, for god’s sake?
The submissions are raw, first-person narratives, and the authors cannot disguise their vulnerabilities and insecurities: the hyper-vigilant nature of one; the combative and offence-taking personality of another. One has a ready-made anger, seemingly waiting to be found. She has been harassed, she says, “everywhere I go”, and while it’s possibly true, it doesn’t take too much imagination to envision the pursed lips and raised eyebrow of the HR employee taking down this declaration. Another troublemaker.
I’m reminded of the work of US journalist Rebecca Traister, who in 2019 looked at the life and work consequences for the women who spoke out about harassment as part of #MeToo. She wrote: “We crane our necks to see the wreckage of powerful male careers without even bothering to wonder about the women whose lives and careers those men damaged … a scrap of ambiguity entrances us in powerful men, while we find less dramatic or interesting the complexities and internal contradictions of those who stepped forward against them.”
Anyone working in sexual assault knows this conundrum: the victim’s ordinary complexities and contradictions become, when held up to the scrutiny of the law, the very weaknesses and vulnerabilities that can be exploited to diminish credibility and damage a claim. You know how it goes: she’s not a team player, she’s overly familiar; she didn’t complain at the time, she makes a big deal of everything; she once said nice things about her assailant, she’s a difficult woman.
Add to these psychological complexities the smoke-wrestling challenge of trying to pin down and describe intangible workplace behaviours such as glances, hostility, no eye contact, being excluded, being mocked, being frozen out, and you’re in the maddening world of Ingrid Bergman’s Gaslight, the 1944 film which has now given its name to one of the most pernicious aggressions. It’s designed to look trivial when it’s written down, and it’s designed to make you feel as if you’re going mad. It works.
“By the time someone comes to us with their unresolved complaint, they’re already very unwell.” That’s John Laxon, high-profile industrial lawyer who has represented many women in the media industry who have come to him with discrimination, harassment and bullying claims. I remember watching him speak at a conference a few years ago. He looked out wearily at a silent crowd of media professionals. He’d said it before; he was clearly going to have to say it again: “HR is not your friend. I’m sorry but it’s not.”
The long-time industrial lawyer has seen it all. He’s the man who represented TV journalist Tracey Spicer in her discrimination battle against Channel Ten when she was sacked after returning from maternity leave, failing to fit into the size-10 dresses she wore before. He was telling an auditorium of working journalists, the ones who might daily report on such workplace outrages, that if they’ve got trouble at work – don’t bother going to personnel.
Victorian QC Fran O’Brien thinks he’s right. “I call them HR’s ‘popsicle policies’: they’re all icy and sweet and they look good but they have nothing underneath: the personnel
departments really don’t understand what’s involved.” O’Brien is one of Victoria’s most senior employment barristers, but she has another history as well. She was one part of the two-woman legal team who appeared in the Supreme Court for the Ormond College women back in 1992. When I ask her of those days, she groans. For two years she couldn’t go anywhere without people wanting to set her straight about “the facts” of the Ormond College matter – “and all because of [Helen Garner’s] damn book! Seriously! I wanted to punch them on the nose.”
O’Brien recalls that not long after the matter was heard in court, she was at drinks with a senior manager from one of the city’s most esteemed companies. The man told the group that neither his firm, nor any other, he believed, had any intention of employing either of the Ormond College girls. One of the women ended up leaving Melbourne to get a job.
In the intervening years, the sexual harassment cases have rolled on. She tells me that the biggest change since the 1990s is that the Federal Court has decided there would be no more “rats and mice pay-outs” in harassment cases: victims have to be properly compensated. The other big change, she says, is that the issue has largely disappeared from big workplaces: “They just won’t tolerate it.” Now, the problem thrives in the smaller workplaces, with lower-paid employees: the places with the single owner, she says, whose mates can’t keep their hands off the women.
Kate Jenkins qualifies O’Brien’s view that the behaviour has disappeared in big companies. She says that while corporates have much more sophisticated policies and processes now, they still have not been particularly effective at preventing sexual harassment. “It still happens surprisingly frequently, although it’s rarely reported. Corporates have a large incentive to keep harassment quiet to avoid reputational risk – that affects the reporting and results in confidential settlements.”
Andrea Lester is president of the Victorian Police Registration and Services Board, dealing with complaints against, and transgressions by, Victorian Police officers. She’s yet another former Ormond College resident, but back in 1992 she was a solicitor, and the other of the two women who walked the college complainants through the legal system. “I was crossed off the Ormond College Christmas card list after that,” she recalls.
She has worked in the field of sexual harassment and violence law since, and she can see the failings: “Any system that operates with ‘zero tolerance’ for certain behaviour is one that is saying ‘never admit’: the only choice is to fight to the death. This approach can scoop up the socially incompetent along with the predators, and it might even deter women from seeking help if they think the only possible outcome will be out of proportion.”
It’s interesting to see these professionals’ profound understanding of a person’s fallibility; they see it up close all the time. “We are so flawed as people,” says Lester, “that when someone makes an allegation, 99.9 per cent of those confronted with the truth of what they did will nonetheless tell that terrible first lie, and then it’s backed in and backed in. It’s the flashing panic of thinking they’re going to lose everything … it’s really hard for a human being to admit, ‘I’ve behaved terribly; I think I owe some people an apology.’”
Lester tells the story of “a sleazy old retailer, a pillar of the community” who had been groping his young sales assistant. No witnesses, of course: it all took place in the back room when no one else was at work. Lester warned her that the man would accuse her of making it up, and asked if she was prepared for the accusation that she was lying? “God bless her,” says Lester. “She pulled out a Sony Walkman – she and her boyfriend had wired her up, ’90s-style.” The recording was the stuff of TV courtroom dramas: “Stop touching me, I’ve told you over and over to stop.” Him: “I pay your wages and if I want to touch your little titties I will.” Sure enough, the man filed affidavits about his standing in the community, and that his accuser was a “troubled young girl”, a fantasist, trying to extort money – all the usual umbrage and outrage.
The man turned up at the conciliation with his wife, and insisted she sit in because he had nothing to hide. Lester often sees this: “I really do think that’s a big driver for a lot of men denying it; they believe their wife would never forgive them.” Lester insisted that his wife leave the conciliation room. “That day when we played that tape at the Equal Opportunity Commission, and watched his face go ashen, was one of the best days I have had at work. I was so proud of that brave young woman. And the Ormond women, too. It takes such courage, conviction and strength to go through it.”
Lester says she’s been involved in 50 or so sexual harassment matters since 1992 in different capacities, and in none did the respondent admit the conduct. “Of course, there are genuinely disputed allegations, but often it’s either the troubled woman/fantasist thing, or it’s a conspiracy to bring him down. The closest they might come to an admission is that it had all been misinterpreted, it was just humour.” An apology, if given at all, is defensive. In her current position with Victoria Police, she sees many respondents end up quitting, too.
It’s a scorched-earth scenario, isn’t it? An accuser who doesn’t feel they can remain at work anymore, and an accused who doesn’t, either. Kate Jenkins puts it only slightly differently: “In most workplaces when this happens, the response is either nothing, or it’s atomic.” Wrap that around a corporate culture now anxiously attuned to any risk of legal liability, and the blunt mechanism of fault-finding discrimination law seems even less promising than it was 25 years ago. We desperately need, Lester says, a system that lets people admit their frailty: “It keeps me awake at night.”
Jenkins sounds almost bemused when she notes, after years of deep analysis of the harassment data, that it’s still abundantly clear that we all just want to get along. “It’s so Australian,” she says. “Women will say to us, ‘I actually like the guy, I know their family, I know they totally don’t get it – I just want them to knock it off.’ ” It’s still the same old thing: we want an apology and a promise of changed behaviour and to move on.
But how to create the change? Harvard Business Review recently published a study from the University of Houston that investigated the fallout from #MeToo, out of an anxiety that the movement was creating a backlash against women. To me, the really compelling finding in the study is that traditional sexual harassment training makes little difference – because men and women already know exactly what harassment is. The one workplace feature that does work, which helps both men and women, is character. The study found that those employees and workplaces with an understanding of what sexism is are much less affected by harassment. And people of “high character … those who display virtues such as courage, are less likely to harass and more likely to intervene when others do”. Ditch the harassment seminars, the researchers say, and focus instead on workplace character.
Jenkins notes the workplaces she knows that manage sexual harassment well are the ones that have a strong sense of respect. “A written policy is not the thing that protects, it’s that thing in the middle: the culture.” But what makes a situation safe? “The most immediate thing is confidence and trust that your line manager will listen to you … that people will get a say and not be thrown under the bus,” says Jenkins. “You have to know that the other staff will respect that as well.” She says a workplace has to make it clear that an incident is not just an individual’s problem, a personal failing, but a systemic one, and that prevention is more than punishment.
It sounds so easy written down, but the real change I detect between 1992 and now is one where perhaps a little more faith is starting to be put in the ability of a community of people to figure out what values define them as a group, and how they come together to solve the problem of a lapse in those values. Make no mistake – the policy of “zero tolerance” is clearly crucial for some employers who are fed up with the failure of work cultures and some people, often men, to change. In those workplaces, people like Andrea Lester see this policy as an entirely valid response. But it’s also a policy that can make it hard to distinguish between behaviour driven by entitlement and misogyny on the one hand, which is usually irremediable – you have to get those people out – and behaviour resulting from social incompetence or a momentary lack of judgment on the other hand.
The other most significant change is that whereas The First Stone set off a debate over what feminism had become (or had grotesquely mutated into), today’s international discussion sparked by the #MeToo movement is much more pragmatic. It’s an accountability movement, not an ideological one: I don’t think anyone in it much cares about the colour of your feminism, or even if that’s a label you wear – they just want to move through the world unharassed, and be entitled to use their own voice if they’ve been harmed.
When I finished Generation F, I closed on a moment of monumental doubt: if these Ormond College women were friends of mine I would probably not have encouraged them to take their complaints to the police . . . let somebody else be brave. I would take my friends away to heal quietly. It was an admission then, as it still is now, of the fundamentally flawed nature of the laws we struggle to make work when they rub up against the volatile combination of human nature and institutional fear – something that no one can be more aware of than those two young women all those years ago.
#MeToo reporter Ronan Farrow says that the best way he knows to support women who speak out about harassment is not to believe but to thoroughly investigate their story. It strikes me now as prescient and brave that the Ormond College women chose to turn such an investigation on themselves, by facing their reputations to the courts, accepting the verdicts, and walking away without recrimination. We’ve never heard from them again. It’s been a most dignified, civilised and powerful silence.