In plain sight

In the wake of the #MeToo movement and sexual harassment controversies at home and abroad, Victoria University of Wellington Law alumna Zoë Lawton is shedding light on injustice.

Zoe Lawton

Legal researcher Zoë Lawton says that the media attention earlier this year relating to the experiences of summer clerks at law firm Russell McVeagh got her thinking about ways to create a forum for people to come forward and share their stories, to help make visible the extent of sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination in the legal profession.

“I saw the media coverage and I was so impressed by the brave young women who came forward—we’ve never seen anything like that before in the profession,” she says. “I didn’t want the story to just blow over and be forgotten, because I knew that the issue was much larger than one law firm. I also wanted to show my support for the young women who kicked things off.”

Zoë says she initially considered doing a survey, but then had the idea of a blog, which she could set up quickly and get feedback from people in their own words—“I think hearing directly from people who have personal experience is really powerful”. In February, Zoë launched an anonymous #MeToo blog to provide legal professionals and law students with a safe and neutral platform to share their experiences. She says she envisioned the blog as “a forum for people to come forward just so we could see the extent of the issue, and it would be in plain sight. I also wanted to demonstrate to the Law Society and the Minister of Justice that these issues are widespread in the legal profession”.

The blog was live for one month, and Zoë received 214 responses—190 from women and 24 from men. She says the vast majority of women who submitted posts had personal experience of sexual harassment and bullying, and most of the incidents reported happened in the workplace. She then met with the Law Society and the Minister of Justice to discuss the themes emerging from the blog. “Women shared a wide range of experiences, from sexist or sexually inappropriate comments and touching, coercion into
sexual relationships, as well as sexual assault and rape. Predominantly women were aged 18–30 when they experienced the harassment or assault and the perpetrator was usually older and in a more senior position.”

On top of the blog posts, Zoë says in the six months after starting her blog she has received around 1,000 emails from women and men around the country who have personal experience or have witnessed others’ experiences. “The blog is only a small snapshot. A lot more women came forward who contacted me personally over email about really traumatic stuff that they didn’t want to say publicly on the blog because they were still very upset. New Zealand is also a small place and they were worried they would be recognised by the perpetrator.”

As well as making harassment more visible, Zoë thinks the process of telling their stories has been useful in other ways—“It’s also just a cathartic thing for people to vent and say what happened to them, because lots of people haven’t had the opportunity to do that. I have since met many women who shared their experiences on the blog and said it has helped them process what happened and get in a better frame of mind, which is so nice to hear.”

Zoë says the influx of blog posts and emails wasn’t unexpected. “I wasn’t surprised at all. I knew that there were so many people out there who had stories to tell. In terms of volume, it’s so much bigger than what a lot of people think.” She explains that her background working as a legal researcher for the Chief Victims Advisor to Government doing research on victims of reported and unreported crime gave her a grounding in the effects and scope of sexual violence in New Zealand. It also gave her an understanding of why so few people make formal reports to Police or their employer.

While the public reaction to the blog was largely positive, Zoë says there was also some backlash. She started receiving threats and abusive anonymous emails. “It was pretty horrible to be honest, but at the end of the day you just have to keep it all in perspective—I’ve had 99 percent support and positive feedback, it’s just the other 1 percent are really loud.”

A year on from when the #MeToo movement began in the United States, Zoë says she has noticed changes in the climate around sexual harassment. “When I started the blog in February, people would email me saying ‘I really support what you’re doing but I can’t publicly say it’. There was so much fear around being seen as a troublemaker. Now, that’s changed—there are more people who are willing to talk about it publicly and say that this is an issue. I think there’s been a huge shift in the past six months.”

An issue Zoë says is hindering the movement from progressing is the lack of male voices in the conversation about sexual harassment. She says while some men have spoken out—she notes that Kensington Swan partner Hayden Wilson and independent barrister Sam Moore have been active in this regard—she would like to see more men provide their views to the media and legal publications. She also notes that at events and forums on sexual harassment that she has spoken at around the country, most of the speakers and the audience have been female. “We need more men to be involved in the discussions on how to reduce sexual harassment, particularly because they hold the majority of leadership roles in the profession.” Zoë has set up a pledge against sexual harassment that men in the legal profession can sign with their name and where they work. “It’s a way to start the conversation with men—getting them to put their name to that.”

The next issue Zoë would like to see addressed is the low reporting rates of sexual harassment. She has recently joined a UK-based tech start-up that offers a reporting platform enabling those who have been harassed or bullied by the same perpetrator to be matched and report in groups. “When I was running the blog and in the months afterwards, the names of the same perpetrators kept coming up time and time again. Many women also expressed reluctance to report on their own as they were worried they wouldn’t be believed—it was their word against a much more senior colleague. It’s a very stressful thing to do on your own.” The reporting tool will be made available in New Zealand in the next few months. “I think this sort of tool is a total game changer. It gives people who’ve experienced harassment strength in numbers and more confidence to report what happened to them.”

Associate Professor Yvette Tinsley from the Faculty of Law, whose area of specialisation includes research on sexual violence, says that in terms of sexual harassment, the legal profession is just a microcosm for a wider malaise. “What’s happening in the legal profession is simply a reflection of what goes on in broader society. We’ve had a bit of a focus on the legal profession because of the events that happened, but that’s not to say that’s the only place this is happening. I think it’s really important to think about that message—it’s not only in isolated pockets of professions, this is about wider rape culture in New Zealand more generally.”

Yvette says the issues raised by #MeToo are also not new. “These are issues that women all over the world have been putting up with for a very long time. I don’t know of any women among my female friends who looked at [Zoë’s blog] and didn’t say ‘Yeah, I’ve had something like that happen’. What I think it’s doing is heightening the consciousness—we’ve reached this place where we’ve achieved certain goals of equality, but it’s made us realise that there are still these things happening.”

Yvette says Zoë’s blog has also helped to heighten awareness of other issues around bullying and discrimination. “It’s opened the door to us thinking more creatively about all of those kinds of behaviours.” Yvette says she admires people like Zoë, as well as many students, who she says have “been able to hook into an international mood, where we’ve got a moment that might actually start to get people thinking about how we all respond in situations around sexual harassment and sexual violence. I think Victoria University of Wellington is really lucky in that it has, and I use this word in a positive way, quite an activist student body, which I am really grateful for. It means that they are coming to us with these ideas. As researchers, we need to be listening. I think that universities can definitely be leaders in this area”.

Zoë echoes Yvette’s sentiments, and says she finds it heartening to see how actively Victoria University of Wellington students have been engaging with these issues, in particular those involved in initiatives like the march on Midland Park co-organised by the Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association (VUWSA), the Law Students’ Society (VUWLSS), and the Feminist Law Society (VUWFLS) in March, the #MeToo blog set up by VUWSA, and the viral New Rules video by the Wellington Law Revue. “It’s great that there have been such high-profile, student-led campaigns, and I think the University should be so proud of them. These students are willing to stick their necks out and make some noise so that the profession is ultimately a safer place for everyone to work.”

Zoë says the Faculty of Law has also been very engaged with the issues and took the lead by publishing a guide for students who have experienced harassment in the workplace during clerkships and other types of internships. This was made available on Zoë’s blog and the Faculty of Law’s website. The support provided by various members of the Faculty also made a huge difference, Zoë says. “Faculty staff who I knew previously provided support and advice to me throughout this whole experience, which at times was very stressful given all the media attention. I’m really grateful and appreciative that they took the time to do that.”

Zoë says she also welcomes the announcement that Dame Silvia Cartwright will chair the New Zealand Law Society regulatory working group to look at the processes for reporting and taking action on harassment and inappropriate behaviour in legal workplaces.

Does she have hope for future of the legal profession? “I think we’ve reached a tipping point and there’s no going back to what it was like before. This is great, don’t get me wrong, but there’s still a lot more work to do and tough conversations that we need to have in all professions, not just law. I hope everyone takes some time to reflect on the #MeToo movement and think about what they can do to be part of the solution. Every action, no matter how small, adds up.”

This article was originally featured in the 2018 edition of our annual alumni magazine, V.alum. If you would like to receive V.alum, either electronically or in hardcopy, please sign up here.