Prime Minister John Key’s ponytail-pulling highlights a wider issue for women, writes Catriona MacLennan.

I was asking an American professor a complicated question about Anzus in a university lecture theatre when he started stroking my leg.

I could hardly believe what was happening. I was doing my work and expected to be taken seriously as a journalist. By contrast, his actions not only showed his belief that women's bodies were his personal play thing - his behaviour also demonstrated his contempt for me in a work capacity. It was obvious he had not been listening to my question as his mind was focused on when the right moment would be to physically assault me.

Over the past week, when I've been talking to women, conversation inevitably turns to our experiences of harassment in the workplace. All of us have experiences to recount. And we all take it for granted that there is only time to mention a couple of the occasions on which we've been subjected to this - it would take too long to mention them all.

Harassment of women is an almost-invisible phenomenon stalking our workplaces. Women know it is ever-present but we also know that, historically, speaking out has rebounded on the woman. The powerful male harasser has been protected by the employer and the woman - whether immediately or after a period - commonly has lost her job.

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The people who have dismissed Prime Minister John Key's repeated pulling of a waitress's ponytail as a "media beat-up", a "joke" and "horsing around" don't understand the harassment of women in the workplace. By dismissing the issue so lightly and ridiculing the brave woman who took a stand, they also make it plain they don't care about it.

People ask me how I know Mr Key would not engage in the same behaviour with a man. Seriously? Can anyone imagine him repeatedly tugging on Pita Sharples' ponytail over the many years they worked together? Do we really think Mr Key would serially touch a Diplomatic Protection Squad member?

Inappropriate, uninvited and unwanted touching in the workplace is targeted by men at women.

It's sad to recount but, even in 2015, women will still often decide that our best option is to say nothing and put up with it. We know that our first hurdle in trying to stop the behaviour will be that we will not be believed. The waitress averred to that when she said in her blog that she only took the wine offered by Mr Key so she could photograph it as evidence.

The second hurdle we face is minimising by the perpetrator, victim blaming and accusations we "can't take a joke". No need to say any more about this - just look at the appalling public condemnation the waitress has been subjected to in the past week.

Women also fear we might lose our job outright if the perpetrator's account rather than ours is believed. Even if we don't lose our job, we might not be promoted because we will be regarded as a troublemaker. We might be subjected to social ostracising in the workplace, or be the butt of subtle harassment as the perpetrator's supporters punish us for speaking up.

The past week has also shown us how almost impossible it is for a woman to preserve her anonymity. She can expect her identity to be splashed in the media and complete strangers will feel free to judge every aspect of her life.

All of these things conspire to keep us silent - they also protect and condone the perpetrator and this behaviour.

The hashtag #NotAllMen was created to state that not all men harass and are violent towards women.

That's not the issue. All women are subjected to the reality or potential threat of such behaviour. This is what the hashtag #YesAllWomen means.

And so it is with workplace harassment. It's serious because women, like men, should be entitled to sovereignty over our bodies in the workplace and everywhere else. It's also serious because it prevents us from doing our jobs. Read the waitress's first blog and see how much time and effort she put into avoiding Mr Key's behaviour.

My best wishes and admiration to the waitress for her courage in speaking out. Good on her. I hope she can now regain some privacy and move on with her life.

I have not used the waitress's name as it was her wish to remain anonymous.

Catriona MacLennan is an Auckland barrister.
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