The sexual harassment started at law school in Sydney. It was a taste of what was to come

Most women I’ve stayed close to from my graduating class have horror stories about men they worked with

‘My cohort [at law school] at the University of Sydney was the first to graduate equal numbers of men and women. But we were entering entirely different worlds when it came to career opportunities,’ writes Catharine Lumby about the reality of sexual harassment.

It was 1988 and I was a freshly minted law graduate sitting in an interview for a job at one of Sydney’s top law firms. Everything seemed to be going smoothly until one of the partners looked up from his notes and asked: “So when do you plan to have children?” I was 26.

Unsurprisingly, my boyfriend at the time, who was interviewed by the same firm, was not asked about when he planned to procreate.

My cohort at the University of Sydney was the first to graduate equal numbers of men and women. But we were entering entirely different worlds when it came to career opportunities.

The sex discrimination and harassment started at law school. One year when we were studying criminal law some of the male students thought it would be amusing to bring a blow-up plastic sex doll to a course in which we were studying sexual assault cases.

To her eternal credit, my friend Charlotte Steer, who now lectures in law at the University of New South Wales, walked out. She and I talked constantly about the sexism we were already encountering. And it was well known among female university students that there were male lecturers you avoided seeing alone in their offices.

That was all just a taste of what was to come. Pretty much every woman I’ve stayed close to from that graduating class has horror stories about being leered at, touched up or put down in sexist language by men they worked with.

One of them, who worked at a major law firm, came into her office and found a Penthouse centrefold pinned to her door with a note which read: “Can you learn to smile like this?”

The same woman went to see a major client interstate who she had only spoken to on the phone. When she walked into his boardroom to discuss a major corporate merger she was structuring for him, he remarked in a disappointed tone: “Oh you’re a brunette. You sounded like a blonde on the phone.”

And then there were the judges. I know a number of young women, myself among them, who had deeply uncomfortable experiences either working as associates to judges or just having the misfortune to encounter them at a drinks function. Their reputations usually preceded them.

I was not surprised or shocked to read that a former judge of Dyson Heydon’s stature could be the subject of such allegations. The former High court judge, who has been accused of sexually harassing six young associates, has denied he engaged in any predatory or criminal behaviour.

That specific case aside, my female friends who work in the law recognise the type described in the allegations all too well. Men who alternate between patronising you in language that belongs in a period costume drama and trying to cop a feel.

Pathetic and out of touch is where my assessment of these men would end if it weren’t for the immense power they wield. They have the power to end women’s careers. They have the power to drive them to leave the legal workforce. And most importantly, they sit in judgment on some of our highest courts and even preside over sexual assault and harassment cases.

As Steer observed to me this week, our generation might have known what sexual harassment was and known it was wrong. But we rarely called it out. We were too afraid that complaining was a career-ending move.

Enter the current generation of young women who refuse to keep quiet, whatever the risk to their careers. Enter the #MeToo generation who have used social media to tell their stories collectively rather than in single isolated file.

Younger women are refusing to stay silent. And good for them. They are opening doors for women of my generation and unlocking our voices. I thank them for that.

I have a feeling that the current allegations about the behaviour of a prominent judge are not the last we will be hearing about. Some of the stories will date back decades. But there’s a good reason for that. It has taken decades for many women to find their voice.

This article was first published in The Guardian