Accusations of sexual harassment have bedevilled universities and government, organisations supposedly staffed by the well-educated.
Why, asks Karen Kissane, do complaints from this quarter so often end in disaster?
`I’D LIKE TO get into her pants,” the professor is supposed to have said. “I’d like a secretary who’ll sit on my knee while I give dictation.” Did he really say it? Has his secretary really been victimised for complaining about it? And does any of this sound familiar?
The claims come from the latest sexual harassment scandal in a public institution, this time James Cook University in northern Queensland. They broke on to the national scene this week at the same time as writer Helen Garner published her book on the harassment case at a Melbourne University hall of residence that has become known as “the Ormond College affair”.
Sandwiched between these two controversies was last year’s Griffiths affair, in which a NSW Police Minister was forced to quit after nine members of his staff accused him of unwanted touching and kissing.
Sexual harassment complaints are not supposed to end in bloody, public brawls like these to end with careers torpedoed, individuals distraught, and august institutions left looking like mud-wrestlers on a bad day.
In fact, most cases don’t finish this way. Usually the parties proceed informally and with some semblance of dignity to resolve their differences within their organisation. If the case is taken to an outside body, that, too, is usually confidential. So how is it that complaints in worldly institutions such as universities and governments, staffed as they are by well- educated people who should be versed in the sexual niceties of the ’90s, can end in such catastrophe?
Sexual harassment conciliators say this is more likely if the parties are left to stew for a long time with no resolution, becoming embittered; where organisations have no formal procedures set up to handle such complaints, leaving everyone floundering; or where the people in charge of the procedures see them more as a means to cover up the problem than as a safe way to explore and resolve it. At the heart of the matter, always, is the emotional maelstrom that develops from the reaction of the two parties combined with the (often unacknowledged) feelings of those who manage the institution.
“One way that management can fall down is to ignore it, and say there isn’t a problem,” says the federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Ms Sue Walpole. “They get scared sometimes and . . . so just hope that it will go away. The biggest and most common mistake is that it gets personalised, rather than the employer just acknowledging that, `I have a dysfunctional employee relationship here and I have to deal with it.’ ” But a sexual harassment complaint is different to other grievances in the workplace; it is more intimate and more loaded because it is connected with an area of life sexual communication that can be difficult even in personal relationships.
“The minute you mention sex you get all that stuff that goes with it,” agrees Ms Walpole. “The discomfort, the embarrassment, the rape mythology `Was she asking for it? She had a short frock on. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time’ all those stereotypical notions about what’s appropriate behavior for women are translated into what’s supposed to be an investigation of an employment relationship.”
The truth about the Ormond College case, says one character in Garner’s book, The First Stone, is deep at the bottom of a well. The facts have never been satisfactorily decided. In 1991 two female students of the college complained of harassment by Ormond’s then master, Dr Alan Gregory. One claimed that he had locked the door of his study and made suggestive remarks to her, the other that he had squeezed her breast while dancing. To this day Dr Gregory strongly denies the claims.
The college’s council said that although it believed the students had acted in good faith, the master still had its confidence. In 1992 one of the students took the case to court, and Dr Gregory was found guilty of one count of assault. This verdict was overturned on appeal on the basis of insufficient evidence; the testimony boiled down to his oath against hers. In a second trial relating to complaints by the first student, Dr Gregory was found not guilty. A subsequent conciliation by the Equal Opportunity Commission resulted in the college offering a public apology in which it admitted it could have handled the case better. Dr Gregory subsequently resigned.
Author Garner has described the students’ actions as “ghastly punitiveness” and suggested that it was the result of a new puritanism in young feminists. But, according to an academic who was on the Ormond College council during the case, Dr Jenna Mead, the students went to police only after the college had proved reluctant to deal with the matter.
DR MEAD, now working at La Trobe University, said in an interview with the magazine RePublica in January that the college council had at no point set up a committee of inquiry into the claims. “One of the chilling moments happened very early on,” she said. “A member of the council looked up and, without noticing me, (this member regularly addressed council as `gentlemen’) said, `Oh yes, well this is just like the Orr case (In 1956 Professor Sydney Sparkes Orr was dismissed from the chair of
philosophy at the University of Tasmania after allegations he had seduced a female student). I knew him, you know . .
. well, we don’t want that to happen again.’ “So there were very real personal investments of acquaintance . . .
lingering disappointment over Orr’s fate and not much change in attitudes towards young women students.”
Yesterday, Dr Mead said: “I think the moral panic generated by (the case) has proved unhelpful and confusing. The important lesson here concerns the refusal of an institution to deal adequately with a complaint of sexual harassment within its own community . . . I think the college council failed both the young women students and Dr Gregory. It failed because the procedures it initiated didn’t respect the principles of equity, procedural fairness and justice. Instead the council’s actions now appear to have been old-fashioned, paternalistic and out of touch.” Ormond College preferred to make no comment.
Since then, Ormond and the other residential colleges have rewritten their procedures. Ormond’s policy against harassment is discussed in its handbook and emphasised at orientations.
But having a written policy that has been cited by the Affirmative Action Agency as a shining light has not saved James Cook University.
It, too, faces allegations that it makes obeisance to the form of sexual harassment policies but is not committed to their substance.
A secretary at the university’s Townsville campus has accused her boss, a professor of history, of having tried to force her into her bedroom during a visit to her house. The husband of the woman, Mrs Barbara van Houts, says the professor also told him that he had twice tried to get into Mrs van Houts’ pants and that he wanted a secretary who would sit on his lap. Mrs van Houts claims that after these alleged incidents the professor made her working life impossible and that she made the claims public after she was offered voluntary redundancy.
The professor denies the claims absolutely. The university has accused Mrs Van Houts of conducting a smear campaign and criticised her for failing to lay a formal complaint of harassment with the university.
But Mrs van Houts says that when she gave a nine-page list of complaints about her relationship with the professor to a university staffer, she was advised to remove two pages detailing sexual harassment claims. Several other women have joined her in saying that they no longer have faith in the university’s internal procedures, according to Susan Rees, a development worker with the Townsville Women’s Centre.
Ms Rees said a sexual harassment support and action group is being set up for at least another 10 women who say that they have been harassed at James Cook. The sexual harassment problem on campus, she says, is not a universal experience, but is too common. Ms Rees says it long ago gave rise to the joke that for women students there, “It’s f— or fail.”
The university, which would not speak to the media this week, maintained in a recent letter to all staff that Mrs van Houts’s union had been misrepresenting the case. The university said it was “totally committed to ensuring that all members of staff and students are treated fairly and equally when it comes to this issue”.
With the case of Police Minister Terry Griffiths in NSW, the procedural problems were clear: there were no formal channels for dealing with such allegations in ministers’ offices. A special inquiry was chaired by a former president of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board, and the women then took their case to that state’s Anti- Discrimination Board.
The federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Ms Walpole, has long argued that the issue of whether politicians should continue to be exempt from sexual harassment legislation should be debated. “If anyone was trying to talk to Mr Griffiths early on about his (alleged) behavior, they would have been taking it upon themselves to do it,” she says.
A sexual harassment conciliator who did not wish to be named says, “I think the problem in cases like Terry Griffiths’, and also the Ormond case, is often when organisations draft their procedures they don’t have clear guidelines about what’s going to happen if a senior person is accused. A conciliator could worry about having to confront a CEO and say, `Sir, they don’t like it when you put your hand up their dress.”
First published in The Age.