Sexual harassment cannot be discounted as a joke

Farah Khan

On Wednesday, July 25, 2018, a complaint was lodged at the New Zealand Law society against the “derogatory and sexiest remarks’ made by Graeme Todd, a Lawyer from Queenstown.

Mr Todd said that he had always fancied his ‘own hareem’ when referring to the number of female staff that he had in his employment in comparison to the few male staff members.

The comments made on the Firm’s (Todd & Walkers) Facebook page sparked much attention in the legal profession, many of whom found them to be sexist and derogatory.

The complaint was made by Zoe Lawton, a Lawyer and #metoo blogger who stated that “these women felt unable to speak out publicly about Mr Todd and be named in this complaint because of the potential ramifications to their careers. I am therefore making this complaint on their behalf.”

Beyond Human Rights

The remarks did not meet the threshold for sexual harassment under the Human Rights Act, Lawton said, and she was not seeking for Todd to be suspended or struck off. But she urged the Law Society to consider how it dealt with such matters.

Mr Todd initially tried to argue that the meaning of the word harem vs hareem was different. Victoria University School of Languages and Cultures Associate Professor Stephen Epstein said that ‘harem’ and ‘hareem’ were different English spellings or pronunciations that were ultimately derived from the Arabic word ‘harem.’

“The word comes from the same Arabic root that gives us the word haram (‘What is forbidden’), as opposed to halal.”

Derogatory Remarks

I viewed the Facebook post and Mr Todd’s comments.

I believe that while is comments were probably meant in a joking manner, the very nature of the comments was derogatory, sexist and racist.

However, with my 13 years of experience, I find it indicative of the language often used in the legal profession. I find that as lawyers we tend to be loose with our language and often do not realise the sexiest norms and practices that operate within a law firm.

Law has tended to be a ‘White-Male’ dominated profession. However, this is rapidly changing with more than 47% of all legal practitioners now female.

Sexists Norms

Sexist and racial norms are so entrenched in the legal profession that it is almost deemed acceptable and very few people will speak out against them.

This obviously does not make it right.

I think that we are moving into an era where it is increasingly more important for people to be more sensitive to their colleagues.

Personally, the comments would not faze or affect me in any way other than it being a joke. However, I can see the impact that such comments would have on a recently admitted female lawyer trying to make a career for herself.

We need to change what has been somewhat normalised and stand up towards any form of sexual harassment. The only way to do this is to start calling out practitioners and people who engage in such behaviour.

Widespread practice

Although I have spoken from my own professional background, I do not think that what the legal profession is facing today is not isolated to this profession.

This is actually a wide spread issue that many of us would face in our work environments and it is time we said that it is not acceptable.

Farah Khan is a Lawyer and Notary Public based in Auckland. Email: Farah.khan@xtra.co.nz

 

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