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Dinosaurs thrive when nothing ever changes

Surely a healthy, respectful culture would not require older women to act as monitors so that real or alleged harassment did not occur. (Who, after all, were they monitoring?) Or, crucially, to cultivate an environment where the onus appears to be on the protection of men from false allegations – which are exceedingly rare – and not the prevention of sexual misconduct.

On the ABC’s The Drum this week, scientist Darren Saunders said hearing the comments from Fraser, who has previously described himself as a “prick”, was “like hearing the voice of a dinosaur come to life”.

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A powerful dinosaur. One who is sitting atop a company that, as the AFR’s Michael Roddan has been reporting, has just promoted a man who had been heavily fined for allegedly sexually harassing a colleague. Boe Pahari was reportedly penalised more than $100,000 for lower level breaches of AMP’s code of conduct following a sexual harassment claim brought by a female subordinate. This was only settled two years ago – but he has just been promoted from head of AMP Capital’s profitable infrastructure equity division to chief executive.

Following a grim and familiar pattern, the woman involved has left the company. After having allegedly been approached by Pahari repeatedly at functions, been publicly probed by him about her relationship history and been cajoled into climbing up onto a table at a nightclub to dance with him, Roddan was told by a senior source familiar with the ensuing investigation that there was “no question she got distressed about it and couldn’t work for a while”.

No question. Meanwhile, Pahari was bumped up the ladder because he “made a lot of money for the company and his employees”.

And the women who work in the belly of this wealth management behemoth – and many men – have had a gutful. Some of their comments, reported at internal AMP meetings include: “Words are not enough. What tangible actions are actually being taken to fix this?” Another said: it was a “demotivating” appointment. “I bet there are 100 women who could have done that CEO job better than he can.”

And this blunt talking female employee argued a woman should take his place, pertinently pointing out: “How we change culture is by doing shit and not just talking about doing shit.”

There is so much talking about shit. So much. So many reports, recommendations, forums, hashtags, corporate promises, and so many women tired of the grindingly incremental pace of change.

It is in this context that Fraser’s remarks emerged, with a jarring and awkward embarrassment, a symbol of a kind of male cluelessness, and corporate stasis. He says he was just being “prudent” to drag along some old birds, sorry, “more mature”, women to functions with him: “I’ve taken the view that when you put staff together in social situations and you mix it with alcohol, it can get silly … they’re dangerous. I would keep saying to the staff: ‘Remember, you’ve got to behave properly’ …

“I would just make sure that when I was at these functions I would be with people I trusted to make sure that if anybody made false allegations against me or the people I was with, I would have someone to provide contrary evidence.”

There are so very few false allegations. The greater question is – what happens to the far more numerous real, substantial ones – those found to be true? Are the men given a quick slap then a big promotion, while the women quietly exit, distressed? In this case, yes.

Women in the Victorian era were very familiar with chaperones. One of the joys of employment for them was that it was meant to allow them a certain freedom of movement; to go about the world unaccompanied. In 1887, the etiquette maven known as Mrs John Sherwood wrote: “If a woman is protected by the armour of work, she can dispense with a chaperone.” It’s a pretty twisted outcome if, 133 years later, it’s their male bosses who are employing chaperones as shields in a climate where sexual harassment remains rife. We are forced to wonder again, and again, who or what is being protected.

Julia Baird hosts The Drum on ABCTV.

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