Powerful men preying on young women in law is not an aberration

Let’s not pretend a powerful man preying on young women in law is an aberration

It's closer to the norm, Jessie Tu writes.
Jessie Tu by Sarah Wilson

When I was a teacher at an all-boys private school in Sydney, I was sexually harassed by a male colleague. It made me feel repulsive. It made me question my ability and professionalism as a teacher. 

The colleague was known as an upstanding Christian father of three teenage children. He was a ‘larrikin’ – meaning, according to other men, he was harmless. Any joke he made about my sexuality was meant in good faith. If I took offence, it was my fault. I was being overly sensitive. 

I believe my colleague knew exactly what he was doing. I believe he did it intentionally to undermine my intelligence and professionalism. He made me doubt myself. That is the strategy of powerful men who prey on young women who are very good at their jobs. 

When I took the issue to HR, a woman, she told me I needed at least two other women to come forth to make my evidence credible. I left the school. The following year, that man was promoted.

Dyson Heydon has spent more than half his life with the banner of “brilliant legal mind.” What are the perks of being labeled a “brilliant legal mind”? In Australia, it apparently means you can harass and violate young women without any accountability. 

In fact, being a “brilliant legal mind” confers a very special kind of power; it effectively buys the silence of women affected, as well as the people who knew. 

In this country’s most powerful legal institutions, the perpetual unmitigated acclaim that powerful men give each other ensures the systemic harassment and assault of the industry’s most vulnerable members – young women – continues. It effectively ensures women are kept out.

Powerful men target a woman’s most vulnerable (and, according to society, her most valuable) asset: her sexuality. They know by doing this, women are reduced to pieces of meat. It’s a strategy – to exert power, keep us out, to destroy every other part of us. And, often, they succeed. 

In my twenties, I studied law and harboured serious ambitions to become a barrister. I worked as an assistant to a lawyer who treated me with respect, courtesy and kindness. Through this lawyer, I encountered barristers and judges, and quickly realised that the higher up in the hierarchy of the law a person was, the less pleasant the manner in which they were inclined and entitled to treat those below them.

I was sometimes left alone in a room with a Senior Counsel who wouldn’t even look me in the eye when they ordered me to undertake certain tasks. Sometimes they didn’t bother to ask my name. Others mistook me for the cleaner. 

I eventually decided to leave the law. I didn’t leave because I was sexually assaulted or harassed at work. I was one of the fortunate few who wasn’t. A global survey by the International Bar Association in 2019 found one in three female respondents had experienced sexual harassment in their workplace. 

I left the law because men controlled the social tenor of the workplace, the culture, the atmosphere. Men controlled the courtrooms. Men controlled the way a case would run. I heard male voices every day, for whole days at a time.

I left the law because I saw it as an environment made by men, for men. An environment in which only the women who were unreservedly dogged in their ambitions could succeed. I saw it was a system where women could only succeed if they were willing to play by the rules set by men.

I left the law because all precedents were written by men. Because most decisions were made by men. Because conversations were dominated by men who believed their voices were the most important voices: because their voices were being extolled by other male voices. 

I left law because the optics of what I considered the most overwhelmingly stark gender segregation I’d seen in any industry; male voices boomed across courtrooms, females quietly took notes, answered phone calls and ordered coffee. Women who breached this tradition were ridiculed and casually ‘othered’ by throwaway remarks made by men. 

Since Monday’s revelations by The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Kate McClymont and Jacqueline Maley, the Australian Workplace Lawyers have proposed a plan to address harassment in the legal profession, including mandating professional development for lawyers on harassment and bullying and bolstering HR policy procedures.  

But none of these measures tackle the root cause of the systemic sexism and misogyny that underlies the behaviour of powerful men like Dyson Hayden.

Powerful men like Dyson Heydon are bred in all-male private schools like SHORE, (where Dyson Heydon was a student) and St Ignatius Riverview, where 15 percent of NSW Supreme Court judges went

I taught in many of these schools for many years, and I experienced a culture that prioritised the male voice at the expense of all others.

I experienced the ruthless disregard for female authority and perspective from the structures of the school, and I experienced the ways in which young boys were being inculcated into a system of belief and a way of moving through the world where they are the authority and successors of male power and leadership. 

At these schools, boys are encouraged, from a young age, to see themselves as the centre of the world – to make deeper grooves into the existing power disparities in industries like the law, where there’s a strong established precedence for them to gain a lot of power, very quickly – because there’s a whole line of men who look like them (usually white) who came before them. Schools that have a high wealth threshold for enrolment are the seeds that grow gender inequality in our society. 

The law relies on a hierarchy where men are still at the top. As long as our legal institutions are operated by men with the pedigree of the likes of Dyson Heydon, we will continue to see young women kept out of positions of influence and power in the law. 

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