Jane Singleton (Foreground Image: AAP, Background Image: Adobe).

Rich men sit at a long mahogany table smoking cigars and drinking port as they manage millions of dollars for the board.

It’s an antiquated, laughable picture — but it wasn’t as far back in history as we’d like to think. And despite the Me Too movement, the boys’ club — on boards, in law, government and sport — is still very much alive, in control, making action against serial sexual harassers difficult.

‘Sexual but not seductive’

Journalist Jane Singleton has hosted the ABC’s 7.30 Report and radio shows on 2GB. Across her career she’s had to tell a mayor, live on air, to remove his hands from her lap, been described as a journalist who is “sexual, but not seductive”, and endured co-workers turning up the air-conditioning so her nipples would stick out.

Male management — the boys’ club — often took issue with “unfeminine” females on radio and TV. Singleton was dismissed from one radio gig after cutting short an interview with Bob Hawke, and from ABC’s 7.30 Report after asking hard-hitting questions.

Singleton and Richard Talbot were the first members to be elected to the NRMA Motoring & Services board since World War II. As outsiders to the “boys’ club” — the inner circle of men who decided how things would be run — they were ostracised. Singleton was subjected to a culture of sexual harassment.

“There was venomous treatment of people with an opposing view — especially if you were female,” she told Crikey.

Cigars, port and board stacking 

Their first board meeting started with a cocktail party.

“I got out of the lift and I was dragged like a schoolboy over to see [a board member] who asked me which school I went to,” Talbot told Crikey. “It was the one and only question they had for me.”

Port and Cuban cigars were handed out by dressed-up waiters.

“The room was filling up with smoke … [Singeton] walked out and went to the boardroom and I followed. I only had one suit and I didn’t want it smelling like smoke.”

The boards were practically incestuous, Talbot said. If the members didn’t know each other from private high school, a golf or football club or social network they knew each other from the boards they sat on. 

“They kept me off serving subsidiary boards to ensure I didn’t get the director’s fee — they weaponise what they’re given to use against anyone that won’t go along with them,” he said.

This made going against the board’s decisions dangerous.

“If you don’t go along with them, you don’t get money … If you step out of line, don’t go along with what they’re saying or don’t cover up for wrongdoing, it’ll affect your whole life. You’ll be a persona non grata.” 

At the time, the board’s legal representation was Dyson Heydon. An independent High Court investigation has since found Heydon harassed six women, five of whom worked in his office.

But this was the ’80s and ’90s. Things are different now, right? 

Not much has changed

Reports of sexual harassment are on the rise. Reported prevalence of harassment in the workplace jumped from 21% in 2012 to 33% in 2018.

While this might be due to better support and awareness for those coming forward, it also shows it’s not going away.

Sydney lawyer Dhanya Mani told Crikey she was sexually harassed by Heydon multiple times. The boys’ club turned a blind eye.

Despite complaining to her judge about Heydon’s advancements, nothing was done. She has found that even after the High Court investigation, legal professionals are still reluctant to talk about the allegations against Heydon.

“I think it exposes how interwoven and interconnected the upper levels of the profession are amongst men, and how much of a boys’ club it is,” she said.

“There’s this weird patriarchal fraternity aspect to the profession that I think some female judges and senior female figures don’t like and haven’t wanted to admit to, because it means admitting to the relative disempowerment and exclusion.”

A spokesperson for the High Court told Crikey the court has developed a supplementary HR policy and allows associates to speak about workplace issues without worrying about confidentiality requirements.

The Liberal Party has an embarrassingly low level of women in its ranks — an issue it has tried to address with op-eds and forced photoshoots (seven men and zero women are praised for implementing women-positive policies on its party page “Liberal Women”). It has also stacked the Administrative Appeals Tribunal with fellow Liberal men. 

When the party was organising an event to discuss its “woman problem”, two staffers who alleged harassment and assault by party members were brushed aside. The party has been accused of having a boys’ club culture.

When AMP’s female executives stepped down amid the Hayne royal commission into financial misconduct, no one rallied around them. When Boe Pahari was accused of harassment, he was protected and promoted, with the board supporting him despite public outcry and falling share prices.

Being “part of the boys’ club” is often important for career progression — drinking, partying and getting along with the men can be key to promotions — but it also makes raising instances of harassment near impossible.

Singleton said although the Me Too movement was positive, it was upsetting how little had changed. 

“It astonished me [the culture] is still like that,” she said. “After all the fights we went to, the position of women is [still] subject to male pressure and male power.”

A spokesperson for the ABC told Crikey it does not tolerate or condone discriminatory behaviour in any form, with staff aware of the organisation’s discrimination policy and standards expected.