boe-pahari
Former AMP Capital CEO Boe Pahari

The story went that a female junior partner, who had threatened to sue the law firm for sexual harassment by a senior male partner, settled for a payment of around $100,000 and laminated blown-up copies of the settlement cheque for placemats. That was the 1990s.

Sexual harassment — an unwelcome sexual advance, unwelcome request for sexual favours or other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature — has been explicitly “unlawful” (in the civil, not criminal, sense) in Australia since 1992, although it’s always been in theory at least actionable as a form of sex discrimination as well, ever since that concept was first recognised.

In the ’90s, there was much awkwardness in the office as it began to dawn on some men that the role of women in the workplace was inexorably shifting from a combination of functional and ornamental, to participatory. Maybe even equal. 

One thing didn’t change, as women flooded the high-rise office towers. Sexual harassment carried on unabated. For the past few decades, corporate Australia has comfortably accommodated its persistence, tolerating it as an inevitable consequence of putting the sexes in the same room, burying it in procedural unfairness and cash payouts harnessed to non-disclosure agreements. It has barely disturbed, let alone ended, any perpetrators’ careers.

As the Dyson Heydon case illustrated, the open secrets of serial predators operating in plain sight have been a notorious and well-understood element of what women have learned to expect in their career navigation. In institutional settings, it has been ubiquitous.

Only sunlight cleans. We’re getting the full glare right now, and the extent of the cleansing cannot be mistaken. Yesterday, the High Court; today, AMP.

I said at the time of the Heydon scandal that Chief Justice Susan Keiffel had changed everything with her choice to properly investigate the allegations against Heydon, publish the results and publicly believe the victims. Suddenly, stunningly, a brahmin had been brought down.

Two more untouchables, this time titans of the Chairman’s Lounge, have fallen now. David Murray and John Fraser aren’t accused of anything but possessing judgement that’s about half a century behind the times, however their unceremonious exits from the AMP board are all about sexual harassment too.

It’s interesting to note the timeline: the Heydon scandal blew up on June 22. AMP announced that it was promoting Boe Pahari to head up AMP Capital on July 1. The AMP board knew what it was doing; it had the detailed report on the gross sexual harassment allegations made against Pahari, which had been found to be substantiated and which the company had accepted as true.

It should have been obvious to the board that, even if Pahari’s victim remained silent, it was going to be problematic defending his promotion in the current climate, given what he had done. Nevertheless, the decision was taken to ride it out and play the wrongdoing down.

When the victim, Julia Szlakowski, did go public, detailing just how much worse Pahari’s harassment had been than AMP was saying, the mutinous atmosphere within the company (below board level and clearly not including the CEO) was about ready to blow. The company’s efforts to threaten its own people into silence were proving predictably counter-productive.

So there was a boardroom coup, no doubt mandated by institutional shareholders sick of the soap opera and wanting AMP to start doing something real to drop its title as Australia’s worst corporate citizen.

The details of the AMP scandal are no more relevant than those of the High Court. We all recognise the mechanics and motivation of sexual harassment. They’ve been around as long as women have been daring to work with men.

The significance of the moment is purely symbolic; the signal has been sent, from two of the highest peaks on our institutional mountain range, that sexual harassment is no longer a career-safe activity. 

Its perpetrators may, finally, face some actual consequences. More importantly, those who enable, tolerate, forgive and protect the predators are not immune from consequence themselves.

The message is that the rules are changing. We call the old men who do not see change coming or arrogantly assume it won’t apply to them, dinosaurs. It only takes the blink of an eye to wipe them out.

Peter Fray

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