Why are women absent from Melbourne Law School’s upcoming ‘conversation’ about sexual assault in the legal sector?
As a law student, I have attended countless MLS events. Normally, they are enlightening and distinguished.
But, when I recently received an email promoting a conversation on sexual assault in the legal sector, I was shocked by the sole listed presenter – The Hon Kenneth Hayne AC QC.
Hayne is a formidable judge, and I would not blink an eye if this event had him speaking to one of his areas of expertise – the Banking Royal Commission, for example.
However, he is not someone who has demonstrated expertise or experience of sexual assault. Nor, is he someone that has been victimised by the glass ceiling, or boys’ club mentality rife in the legal profession. In fact, Hayne has explicitly benefitted from these things. His marriage to Michelle Gordon, whom he met when she was his instructing solicitor 20 years his junior, validates and encourages the culture of senior men making advances on young lawyers. It has clearly worked out for this so-called “power-couple”, but the vast majority of older men who hit on their younger female colleagues do so unwelcomed, and it turns into sexual harassment or assault far too often.
Why did MLS think it was a good idea to have a conversation about sexual assault in the legal profession, but have the sole presenter be a man, and someone with the seniority and background of Kenneth Hayne at that? People with structural power should not be the voices we give a platform to when it comes to discussing issues which overwhelmingly affect those without structural power. Women make up the vast majority of sexual assault victims, and men make up the vast majority of offenders. This appointment reinforces the sexism in the legal profession that gives rise to sexual assault, while piggybacking off sexual assault victims’ trauma. It is virtue signalling at its most transparent.
As a woman, almost every woman I know (including myself) has a story of sexual assault or harassment. MLS could have reached out to nearly any female solicitor, barrister, or judge to speak on this topic, and they would have been able to speak to first-hand experience of being victimised by the male-dominated legal profession. It comes as no surprise that women’s voices are being sidelined and silenced once again, but it is particularly egregious that this is categorically a women’s issue and women are not present. As a side note, I was recently made aware that MULSS President, Thea Stephenson, will be facilitating the conversation with Hayne, but she is not even mentioned in the event’s public description. Any expertise or experience she may have in sexual assault in the legal profession was apparently considered less important to MLS in promoting this event than Kenneth Hayne and his decorated history (none of which speaks to expertise in sexual assault). In any case, an MLS student speaking to Kenneth Hayne still ignores the voices of women who have first-hand experience of working in the legal profession. Hayne is undeniably presented as the star of the show and his credentials far exceed that of his female support act – that is hardly progressive. It’s not good enough.
Even putting to one side Kenneth Hayne’s identity, how is he the expert that we should be hearing from about sexual assault in the legal profession? There is nothing in the event description that suggests Hayne can give expert insight into sexual assault. Hayne worked alongside Dyson Heydon in the High Court for Heydon’s entire High Court tenure, yet claims he had no idea about the numerous sexual assault allegations Heydon was the subject of. When sexual assault is an “open secret” in the legal profession, why is Hayne the expert on it if he was apparently too blind, or wilfully ignorant, to notice Dyson Heydon harassing his own associates?
I question what Kenneth Hayne thinks he has to offer on the topic when he has no notable experience in advocacy for the victims of sexual assault. It seems as though all Kenneth Hayne has done on the subject of sexual assault in the law is stress his ignorance and innocence as to its occurrence. He has also expressed platitudes to the media about how there is ‘no honour in protecting the perpetrators of sexual harassment’ - sure, but we need to stop valorising men for doing the bare minimum. Especially when it takes a speaking platform away from a woman; someone who may have actually been victimised by the misogynistic and patriarchal institution that Kenneth Hayne sat in the highest office of for nearly two decades.
If Hayne really wants to be an advocate against sexual assault in the legal profession, he should stand aside and let its victims speak.
Fiona Bucknall is a final year Monash law student.
MLS, MULSS, and The Hon Kenneth Hayne AC QC declined to comment on this article.
The views in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of De Minimis or its Editors.