In workplaces around New Zealand, alleged sexual predators are being protected by employers who refuse to condemn the actions of top performers. For the women who stand up to these men, the cost can be huge. Like Harvey Weinstein’s victims, sometimes it’s easier to just smile and carry on. Michelle Duff reports.

Arika’s story

It was her first job. The office environment wasn’t great. Sexist jokes were normal, with her boss often commenting on her appearance or telling her how “amazing” she was.

This made her uncomfortable, especially as one of the only women. Straight out of university, she was lacking in self-confidence.

But within a short period of time, the boss made it very clear what he really wanted her for.

After a work social event, he orchestrated being alone with Arika* and made her perform a sex act on him. Later, he coerced her into having sex with him, against her will.

I felt as though this man held the future of my career in his hands.
Arika

“I was feeling disgusted with what had happened to me but I couldn’t find help anywhere. He owns the firm,” Arika says. “Who do I speak to? He is friends with HR. I tried to ignore it and just do my work.”

Arika began dressing in baggy clothing, trying to avoid his gaze. She lived in constant dread of his messages. She doubted herself, and her ability to do the job. But he kept pressuring her to meet him, and she felt obliged. “It was like he owned me because he owned the firm. I was a graduate and I just wanted to fit in and do the best I can.”

A year after leaving the firm, Arika suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and is receiving counselling to help her understand she’s not to blame. She struggles with the feeling she’s ruined her own career.

A common theme in stories sent to Alison Mau as part of Stuff’s #metooNZ investigation was how assailants were supported by a toxic workplace culture, forcing victims into silence. An actor voices Arika’s* story.

A common theme in stories sent to Alison Mau as part of Stuff’s #metooNZ investigation was how assailants were supported by a toxic workplace culture, forcing victims into silence. An actor voices Arika’s* story.

Why didn’t Arika just say no? How was she able to continue working alongside her assailant? Why didn’t she tell anyone?

These questions might sound familiar. They’ve been asked of women since the very beginning of the Me Too movement: Why were Harvey Weinstein’s victims smiling in photographs with him? How could they not say anything, knowing what he was capable of? How hard is it to turn down a creep, really?

Harvey Weinstein and Rose McGowan during the ‘Grindhouse’ Los Angeles Premiere in 2007. PHOTO: REUTERS

Harvey Weinstein and Rose McGowan during the ‘Grindhouse’ Los Angeles Premiere in 2007. (PHOTO: GETTY)

Harvey Weinstein and Rose McGowan during the ‘Grindhouse’ Los Angeles Premiere in 2007. (PHOTO: GETTY)

These kind of myths - that saying ‘no’ is easy, and they could have done something to prevent the abuse - are prevalent. But they ignore powerful social forces that mean women’s choices are sometimes not choices at all.

Abuse is never, ever the victim’s fault. Studies have found that a loud refusal - the word ‘no’ - can be an incredibly difficult and socially alienating thing to say, even when turning down a coffee invitation.

But as Auckland University professor Nicola Gavey has highlighted time and again in her local and international research, gendered norms are ingrained in our society. It’s in this climate that a woman can say actually say no to sex - loudly, and repeatedly - and the defence at a rape trial can argue she “didn’t really mean it.” A woman can vomit and have a panic attack during an alleged rape, and the jury can decide there was reasonable doubt he knew she wasn’t consenting. If these high-level allegations are being dismissed, why should any women trust justice to be done, anywhere?

The end result, as we’ve seen mirrored in the narratives sent to us, is that women often minimise and deny their own experiences in order to be able to carry on with their lives.

However, the emergence of the Me Too movement has brought with it the hope that this is beginning to change. Rape Prevention Education Wellington executive director Debbi Tohill reckons one of the legacies of the movement has been to help women reframe past incidents of sexual violence.

Rape Prevention Education Wellington executive director Debbi Tohill

Rape Prevention Education Wellington executive director Debbi Tohill.

Rape Prevention Education Wellington executive director Debbi Tohill.

“Me Too has given many women an opportunity to think about and to give a voice to their own experience - in some cases they may not have even seen what has happened to them as sexual assault previously. It can be a protection factor to cover up their experience and their own reaction and often a survivor will use alcohol and drugs to try and forget,” Tohill says.

“They will leave the workplace, rather than having to see the offender on a daily basis and be reminded of what occurred.”

Power and control

One of the biggest themes we saw in women’s stories was power. How it’s wielded, and how hard it is to fight against when you have none.

In the hundreds of stories we have read, heard or investigated since the beginning of Stuff’s #metooNZ project, the imbalance of power between victim and assailant is an overriding factor.

The owner of the company who booked his assistant into the same room as he and his wife during a conference, then tried to pressure her into a threesome.

The hospitality figure who yelled at one of his bartenders to “get some pussy on the bar!”, before drunkenly groping her. After that, she danced.

The academic, now in her 60s, who was a research assistant when she was sexually abused by a distinguished professor.

“I am not going to end by saying it made me stronger, or without it I might not be where I am today or any of that trite bulls...,” she says.

“I doubt anything at all has changed. Worst is the power [these men] still wield.

“Good luck with the project - and especially good luck to all the women who share their experiences - because as far as I can see, it is pure luck that determines who and how anyone gets through this nightmare and still manages to build a career.”

This power does not always lie with one individual. The culture of an organisation helps to prop up the behaviour, with the condoning or encouraging of smaller signs of disrespect for women - laughing at sexist jokes, using derogatory or demeaning names or nicknames - laying the groundwork for the excusing of larger misdemeanours. A predator will often groom a workplace, undermining his victim or painting them as a “slut” in an attempt to undermine any future testimony.

“The dynamic of sexual harassment at work is often that it builds up,” says Victoria University senior lecturer in social and cultural studies Carol Harrington.

“It starts off as not much - something you might be able to brush off - and if you don’t say something then, when do you say something?

“At a workplace you want to please your boss, which is why someone might not complain about the lower level stuff - and then it escalates. No-one wants to be branded a troublemaker, no-one wants to lose their job.”

Victoria University senior lecturer in social and cultural studies Carol Harrington.

Victoria University senior lecturer in social and cultural studies Carol Harrington.

Victoria University senior lecturer in social and cultural studies Carol Harrington.

Harrington, who studies the stories women tell about rape on YouTube and in online media, says many women don’t acknowledge what happened to them as rape or sexual assault at the time because it can be easier to pretend everything’s okay. This is particularly the case when the perpetrator is someone they know. “In many cases, she’ll try and minimise what happened and get on with her life and career and not rock the boat. It’s only years later she can look back and think: ‘Wow, that was way out of line’.”

Supporting predators

Some women we spoke to told stories of organisations that actively supported men who were known serial abusers.

Even with the many reasons not to - fear for their employment, being belittled and disbelieved, being defined by or blamed for the event - many women did report the misconduct. These women were not vengeful, or doing it out of spite: they simply wanted to see justice done. For a small number of those who contacted us, it was resolved.

For most, it was not.

One manager at a large organisation cornered one of his employees at a work social function, put his hand up her skirt and grabbed her vulva. Angie*, who doesn’t want to be named for fear of repercussions, says if this happened now she would go straight to police. But at the time of the incident she says she was naive, choosing instead to report it to HR in the belief he would be sanctioned at work.

“He actually tried to put his fingers inside me. If someone did that to you on the street, you’d call the cops. But when he did it there were lots of people around, I was really embarrassed - I don’t know why because he did it - and I just kind of ran off.”

HR believed her, Angie says, telling her: “Oh yeah, that’s just what he’s like.” A promised investigation never happened, and the manager was promoted shortly afterwards. She had no option but to leave her job, and now suffers from depression and anxiety.

“I was really stupid because in the beginning I was like: ‘This stuff doesn’t happen to people these days, and they’re going to protect me because that’s the way it works.’ But for them, it was more important that they cover it up and get rid of me than address his behaviour.”

The man still works at the organisation.

This, too, was an ongoing theme. In many of the stories sent to us, the perpetrator remains at large. We haven’t been able to tell these for a variety of reasons. Often, the women involved were still too afraid to go on the record. They lived in the same communities as their abusers. Speaking out would affect their employment prospects or those of relatives, or their children’s lives. Even when they had left their jobs, the physical and mental effects of the abuse or harassment was ongoing. They didn’t want to invite the abuser back into their lives.

As journalists, hearing these stories - which could involve multiple women targeted by the same man, or horrific incidents of alleged assault by high profile men - and not being able to tell them, has been soul crushing. Some of them, we will continue to pursue. Others, we may never be able to bring to the light of day.

Social change doesn’t happen overnight, and Harrington says it’s up to each workplace - and individual - to make the effort. Aside from concrete changes like the introduction of sexual misconduct policies where there were none, she thinks the collective sharing of stories, of women knowing that they are not alone, will make a difference.

* Name changed

WANT TO SEEK HELP? Access advice on how to contact police or other support services.

Spacer

Journalist: Michelle Duff
Video Producer/Director:
Jo Raj
Videographer: Phil Johnson
Designer/Developer:
Kathryn George
Editor: John Hartevelt

Spacer