The lawyer who blew the whistle on appalling sexual harassment in the legal profession has inspired hundreds to share their stories. Now is the time, says Olivia Wensley, for change.

One woman bravely fought off an attempted rape in the workplace; another is on the verge of suicide after a sexually-driven incident in a law firm that was so violent she feared she would die.

More than one woman told me of being forced to have naked, degrading photos taken in the workplace.

And a common experience, among hundreds from many industries shared with me since I wrote my article on the problems the legal industry faces with sexual harassment, is of law firm partners sliding their hands down tops and groping bare breasts, or buttocks.

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For others the abuse has been verbal, with degrading comments on their physical appearance.

Many young professionals have suffered horrendous abuse, and have been forced to stay silent.

The past few weeks have felt like emerging from the twilight zone - from a world where it was commonly known that sexual harassment is a big problem - yet everyone was too afraid to talk openly about it.

The sands are shifting, and the power imbalance is changing.

We're finally talking about Law's dirty little secret. Except, it's no longer a secret - it's a big public problem.

The Minister of Justice, Andrew Little has assured me that an inquiry will take place if proper action is not taken by the New Zealand Law Society to remedy this systemic problem within the legal industry. Acknowledgement of the problem is the first step.

But, this isn't just a "law" problem, this is an abuse of power problem. To fix it, there needs to be a cultural change.

I've been called "brave" repeatedly - this demonstrates the problem: that there's something to be afraid of.

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It shouldn't be considered "brave" to speak the truth.

However, many are fearful of repercussions from speaking out. Many are even too afraid to "like" anything on this topic on social media.

I have nothing to be afraid of any more. I now work in the Legal Tech industry, for an amazing female CEO who empowers me.

I'm honoured to be the voice of those who feel they must stay silent.

Issue not millennial, but multi-generational

I know we've barely scratched the surface. This is our chance as a profession to take a good, hard look in the mirror, and enact real change.

Not just "window-dressing" for PR.

I've been subject to some extremely unpleasant sexual harassment during my legal career.

However, nothing could prepare me for the horrific stories I've heard since I went public.

They're extreme, they're heartbreaking. I'm privileged that you have trusted me to share - and I believe you.

This isn't a "millennial" issue - this is about multi-generational pain, which has been silenced. It's about abuse of power.

It's endemic.

For too long, many women have felt "gaslighted" (doubting their own sanity). Being led to believe this poor behaviour is normal. The outcry is loud and clear - "Time's Up".

Many who contacted me have never told anyone. The consistent theme is fear. I'm told over and over, "I fear for my own professional reputation".

The fear is real, and a result of conditioning from a young, impressionable age.

It's a sad irony the legal profession is in the spotlight. Lawyers should be a shining example of ethics. They're held to a higher standard.

The vast majority are good. It's unfair to associate them all with the poor behaviour of a few.

I believe the law is particularly prone to sexual harassment, because of the huge power imbalances due to the structure.

The profession appears to attract personalities who believe they can act without repercussions.

These alpha males seem to treat young women as the "spoils" they deserve for reaching the pinnacle of a notoriously tough profession.

They dehumanise them. It's about dominance and control.

'Men should drive this cultural change'

The public outrage over Russell McVeagh is unsurprising. But this is a problem with the legal profession as a whole - and many other professions too.

It's clear many people don't know what to do next.

Lawyers must declare every year to the New Zealand Law Society that they're a "fit and proper person" and of good character to receive their practising certificate.

When the poor behaviour by some lawyers brings the whole profession into disrepute, it's their legal peers who should be most angry. We need strong women and men to stand up to this behaviour.

A new movement has been launched under the "Time's Up" banner - "expect more from him".

As men are the primary offenders, they should drive this cultural change. Many lawyers I worked with are appalled by this poor behaviour.

Law is still a man's world. More than 60 per cent of admissions to the bar are women, but only 27.1 per cent of partners and directors in law firms are women.

Even when women make partnership many feel powerless to enact a cultural change.

In the legal profession, the culture has been slow to change. The result is a general acceptance of misogyny in some less progressive firms.

Olivia Wensley has been inundated with distressing stories of workplace harassment and has created a website to help those victims. Photo / Supplied
Olivia Wensley has been inundated with distressing stories of workplace harassment and has created a website to help those victims. Photo / Supplied

A former colleague was told during a pay review after many years in practice "we can't pay you any more, you know about the glass ceiling right?"

Cultural change needs to come from the top down.

As most partners in law firms are male, we need them to stand up for, and protect, their employees.

Change must start grassroots level - after the revelations about the University of Otago, it's important to ensure the right culture is set from the beginning.

In my job I work with modern law firms pushing the boundaries to change the way law is practised.

They create a positive working environment, focusing on wellbeing and work-life balance, resulting in happier employees.

Zero tolerance policy to workplace sexual harassment needed

It's important that women also need to take the blame - some overlook or defend the bad behaviour.

I've heard women say, "at least he thinks you're pretty", and "that's just his sense of humour".

They can be offenders too - several men and women shared stories of sexual harassment by women.

A couple of women said they've not experienced sexual harassment, while expressing doubt there's an issue. They're lucky - it's not proof there's no problem.

I ask employers to enact a "zero tolerance" policy towards sexual harassment in the workplace.

Too many companies have a sexual harassment policy, but don't enforce it. Without real consequences, nothing will change.

This may involve difficult conversations and business decisions, but it's in the best interests of all companies to promote a culture where employees feel happy and safe.

This crisis in the legal profession has drawn into focus the need to protect young people.

I've been contacted by many young women who left the law, or never started their career, because of sexual harassment during work experience.

An AUT study in 2016 found 95 per cent of women respondents agreed there was a trend for women to leave firms or the profession.

If a young professional suddenly leaves an industry, such as law, after years of studying, it shows something is seriously wrong.

Governing bodies should collect data on attrition rates of young women early in their careers - and the reasons they leave.

We all have a duty, in every profession, at every level, to shine a spotlight on this behaviour to enact change. It's clear sexual harassment often accompanies other types of toxic behaviour in the workplace.

Where there's sexual harassment, sexism is often present, as is bullying, and other forms of harassment.

A good culture and a positive work environment doesn't happen by luck - it needs to be cultivated by management.

We must also be careful to not create a different type of fear by going too far the other way.

We don't want a "PC brigade" where men are afraid of women and can't develop a friendly relationship in the workplace. Jokes and banter are perfectly acceptable if they come from a place of friendly, mutual affection.

What next?

The New Zealand Law Society - and other professional governing bodies - must condemn sexual harassment/assault as professional misconduct.

Legislation must be updated where required. Bullying and other forms of discrimination should be included too.

Many women have asked whether they can break their non-disclosure agreements in order to complain to the New Zealand Law Society - which has added information on this topic on its website.

The information supplied is weak. The society doesn't take a strong position to condemn sexual harassment and assault as professional misconduct.

The UK's Solicitors Regulation Authority said this week that any professional misconduct by a person or firm must be reported to the regulator.

Law firms and solicitors have been warned not to hide professional misconduct by using non-disclosure agreements.

Under 2.8 Lawyers and Conveyancers Act (Lawyers: Conduct and Client Care) Rules 2008 there's a statutory requirement for lawyers to report professional misconduct.

A non-disclosure agreement, which requires a signatory to breach their statutory obligation, is clearly unenforceable.

This issue needs to be looked at closely by all professions - it's a problem wherever there is a traditional power imbalance.

I have created www.timesup.co.nz - as a place to volunteer, or seek help for issues with sexual harassment. This will be a central database of practical information for employees and employers.

I will be working with the New Zealand Law Society on ways to address this issue, and how to prevent occurrences in the future.

I am also looking at further solutions for gathering data and reporting incidents, using blockchain technology - which I hope would have a powerful impact on curbing undesirable behaviour in the workplace.

How can we make a real change?

Reach out: If you've experienced sexual harassment at work go to www.timesup.co.nz - you will be treated with 100 per cent confidentiality.

Volunteer: Lawyers can offer their services pro bono to those who've been sexually harassed at work. Go to www.timesup.co.nz if you want to volunteer.

Accept: Acknowledge sexual harassment is rife in many professions. By accepting the problem, we have a starting point.

Discuss: Talk with your staff, colleagues and friends. Many claim to be unaware of the problem, but have never asked about it.

Believe: Many are afraid to share their experiences of sexual harassment because they fear they won't be believed. They need to hear three powerful words: "I believe you".

Create a Policy: I've created a Sexual Harassment Policy Bot - which creates a customised policy for free - it can be downloaded here.

Zero Tolerance: Adopt a "Zero Tolerance" approach for sexual harassment and take all claims seriously.

Where to get help

• Auckland Sexual Abuse HELP Foundation: 09623 1700
• Counselling Services Centre: 09277 9324
• National Rape Crisis: 0800 883 300
• Police: 111