A culture of heavy drinking and sexual harassment is part of the reason Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman says she left her legal job at the United Nations.

Relationships between the mainly "young, bright, female interns" and men in senior positions were common and verbal sexual harassment was "rife", she said.

She was commenting in the wake of serious sexual misconduct allegations in the New Zealand law industry, including complaints of sexually inappropriate behaviour against female summer interns by staff members at law firm Russell McVeagh.

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At the UN, interns complained to the few senior female staff, including Ghahraman, about unwanted touching during meetings.

"There's this moral high ground that comes with working for the UN, and then after-hours there was just this 'you're off the leash' culture, which did manifest in really inappropriate ways."

Ghahraman said she was the only female staffer in her team, but most of the interns coming through for three to four months at a time were women.

"They're much younger, in the start of their careers, there was this very, very obvious [gendered] power dynamic in the team."

Ghahraman left her job in Cambodia in 2012 for a number of reasons, but said dealing with a year of unwanted approaches by a senior lawyer she worked with at the UN played a big part in her decision.

After rejecting his advances following months of trying to "manoeuvre" out of the situation, the man refused to speak to her when they worked together.

Ghahraman had also fielded a complaint from an intern who was being constantly harassed by a senior staffer, asking her to work with him alone in bars, cafes and late at night.

"She was really uncomfortable about it and didn't know what to do about it.


"That stayed with me and made me feel when I was leaving I needed to bring up what had happened to me."

Ghahraman made a complaint against the man after resigning from her job - but the person she complained to was later accused of serious sexual misconduct himself.

He has now left the UN, she said.

"It was so rife you couldn't even really complain, because often complaints had already been made about the person you were taking it to."

Ghahraman said she was pursued by a senior staffer for a year. Photo / Doug Sherring
Ghahraman said she was pursued by a senior staffer for a year. Photo / Doug Sherring

Young women were also worried about hurting their careers, something Ghahraman said was the case in commercial law firms in New Zealand.

Her work at the UN was the first time she was exposed to a culture of heavy drinking and harassment, having avoided it at the University of Auckland, where she received her LLB.


"It's a blokey culture but women dominated in numbers," she said.

Ghahraman then worked as a barrister in New Zealand and said the experience was free from the kind of behaviour described at Russell McVeagh.

"It's the corporate culture that needs to change," she said.

"These hierarchies where men are promoted above women and it hasn't adjusted yet to modern ideas of gender equity.

"We need to dismantle that power dynamic and culture and things will come right."

The UN's office in New Zealand has been approached for comment.


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