More to the Sutton story than just hugs and jokes

OPINION: 

When Roger Sutton resigned from Cera on Monday, many rushed to say he was a competent and likeable guy. But however nice he is, a seven-week investigation into a sexual harassment complaint against him from a staff member found "serious misconduct".

People leaped to their keyboards, wrote letters to the editor and took to social media to vent their shock. The strange thing was, most of it was directed at the victim.

At first all we knew was that Sutton had hugged, joked around and called women "sweetie" and "honey". He revealed most of this himself in the media, giving the impression that there wasn't so much to the complaint (that said, I am glad no one calls me "honey" at work). Then more details emerged. Sutton was alleged to have suggested "visible G-string Friday" to young female staff, given body-press hugs and asked the complainant who she would like to have sex with. So it wasn't just "hugs and jokes" after all.

Sutton's behaviour is at odds with my personal experience with Kiwi men at work and in general. In France, I experienced catcalls every time I walked a street, and men would openly comment on my appearance and what I wore at work. Sometimes it was said nicely as a compliment and I didn't mind. Other times it was rude and offensive.

Because sexist behaviour is so common in France, women often just grind their teeth when it happens, rather than stand up as they should. There's a certain fatalism in people's attitudes.

Not so, I think, in New Zealand. When I arrived I felt completely invisible at first. No catcalls, no compliments, no comments. After almost two years here, I feel much more relaxed about my looks than I did in Europe. I wear less makeup and more casual clothes. I feel safer. And it's not just me.

A video of a woman receiving a large number of catcalls walking through New York City's streets went viral a few weeks ago. The New Zealand Herald created a similar video on the streets of Auckland. Only two men openly interacted with her, politely.

Of course, it's hardly perfect here. But as the Government works to address issues revealed in the Roast Busters scandal and the handling of the sexual assault allegations relating to the Malaysian diplomat, we should be proud to live in a society that allows women to speak up when they feel uncomfortable at work, not leap to criticise them when they do. Holding people in positions of power to high standards of behaviour is not "PC gone mad". It is a vital component in maintaining safe work environments for everyone.

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 - The Press

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