Anyone following the recent spate of stories about sexual harassment and exploitation of girls in Australia’s elite schools and universities might find Tuesday’s allegations of “a toxic culture of harassment and predatory behaviour” at Macquarie Group eerily familiar.
Up-skirting, “alpha-male culture”, “predatory behaviour towards a female staff member” and stalking are among the claims made in a letter from lawyers planning a class action against the investment bank.
An ex-Macquarie staffer claimed a former stockbroker cut off a woman’s ponytail at the office. “He put the hair on her desk, right in front of her. She was so shocked she didn’t say anything,” they said. Complaints were made but no action was taken.
The Macquarie Group told Fairfax Media that it takes all allegations of inappropriate behaviour very seriously and denied that any current staff members were involved in any of the allegations.
It’s difficult to imagine a modern workplace where men could assault women and it’s not just seen as normal behaviour, but a “funny story” to tell around the office. But perhaps looking at the path these men take to get to such positions might explain how it might happen.
When the “young sluts” Instagram account set up by boys from Brighton Boys Grammar was reported in the media last year, headmaster Ross Featherston said the school was taking the matter very seriously. The Age reported at the time that “a Melbourne mother who spoke out in disgust… told Fairfax Media that she received a threatening phone call from an ‘old boys’ club’ parent’.”
When boys from Melbourne Grammar were filmed rating girls on a scale of one to 10 and being told not to bring anyone under a seven to the end of year formal the following month, headmaster Roy Kelley said the school was taking the matter very seriously.
When a series of group sexual assaults at Trinity Grammar in Sydney was exposed in 2000, the school hired a public relations firm to divert the media reporting to an issue of “bullying” – rather than the systemic rapes of children, watched and applauded by large groups of students. Four students eventually pleaded guilty to various offences and were given good behaviour bonds.
An in-depth examination of the culture at Trinity looked into the long history of so called elite schools and concluded that “bullying, brutalisation, and ‘hardening’ [is] characteristic of the production of ruling-class masculinity”.
That none of the offenders faced any serious consequences was not surprising, the report said: “Each boy had his own team of lawyers. These were ruling-class boys.”
St Michael’s Grammar School, one of Melbourne’s most expensive private schools, last year expelled one boy over what police called a pornography ring when a Dropbox folder containing nude images of girls from the school was accessed by several male students at the school.
A former student of the school told Fairfax Media that the headmaster Simon Gipson castigated the girls of St Michael’s for not reporting the existence of the Dropbox folder.
No one is born believing poor people are just too lazy to be rich or that women are nothing but objects of fear or lust.
These schools are feeders for the elite colleges like St Paul’s College at Sydney University, infamous for its pro rape Facebook group. The five students suspended from ANU’s John XXIII College for posting photos of women’s breasts and rating them on Facebook were all from elite private schools in Victoria and NSW. Six months later another four students from John XXIII were suspended for chanting graphic sexual rhymes about “nailing women”. Both Melbourne and Monash Universities had degrading “hotties of” Facebook pages taken down after female students complained.
Despite how “very seriously” all these matters are taken by executives releasing media statements, sexism and entitlement seems entrenched in schools and universities for the privileged elite.
And where do the boys and young men go after their expensive educations?
Merchant banks, prestigious professionals, corporate leadership and politics.
The forensic examination of the rapes at Trinity summed it up perfectly: “From elite boarding schools to college to the boardroom, the masculinity of success separates emotion and friendship from each other and degrades caring and affection… women are outsiders, at best a necessary evil, at worst a threat to their liberties and to their very identity”.
Ross Gittens’ incisive article yesterday described the effect of this on the national economy: “More than three decades of neoliberal ideology… have left business people convinced they’re demi-gods, the source of all goodness and justly entitled to our approbation and genuflection.”
That entitlement wasn’t created in a vacuum. No one is born believing poor people are just too lazy to be rich or that women are nothing but objects of fear or lust. These things are taught, both implicitly and explicitly.
The lessons are clear. From the ridiculousness of gendered clothes that allow boys to run and force girls to sit quietly with their knees together, to the sinister warning that encouraging rape might damage your job prospects by resurfacing “just when you need your best CV to work for you”.
Education and wealth is no protection from sexism. The huge gender disparity in the professions of the privileged like science, law and medicine are proof of that. Sexual harassment and bullying are higher in the media than in the police force. In the corporate world CEOs are three times more likely to be named John or Peter than to be female.
The pipeline of sexism starts early and continues all the way through to the boardroom.
Whatever the results of the investigation into the allegations about the Macquarie Group, it would be a mistake to believe such cultures are rare or that they happen by accident.
They’re taught in the homes, schools and universities of the wealthy and the trickle down effect of the attitudes, if not the entitlement itself, might be stronger than we imagine.