She says it began, as it so often does, with a sleazy comment. But it didn’t end there. On May 23, 2010, Kristy Fraser-Kirk, then a 25-year-old junior publicist with retail powerhouse David Jones, was at lunch with several of her colleagues. They were there to celebrate a big PR win for the department store, and the wine and conversation flowed. Until it flowed, for Fraser-Kirk, into a dark place, one that she says she found to be “degrading” and a “complete abuse of power”. Fraser-Kirk was seated next to the company’s CEO, Mark McInnes, a man 20 years her senior and many rungs above her on the company ladder. As part of the subsequent sexual harassment case, Fraser-Kirk made a statement of claim, in which she detailed how McInnes leered that the dessert being served tasted like “a fuck in the mouth”. Later in the evening, she said, he would slide his hand under her jumper and touch her bra strap, then try to coax her to his apartment in Bondi, implying, she believed, that they would have sex there. At an event the following month, she says McInnes attempted to kiss her twice and persisted with the invitation to his apartment.
What followed, after Fraser-Kirk complained to her HR department and asked for a review into their workplace culture, was one of the most high-profile sexual harassment cases in Australian history, one that settled out of court and led to McInnes’ resignation (complete with a golden handshake, reported to be about $2 million). Fraser-Kirk was variously labeled a champion for women and a grasping gold-digger after her lawyers’ ambit claim of $37 million. She walked away with $850,000, much of which went towards her substantial legal bills. McInnes initially admitted to behaving in a manner unbecoming of the high standard expected of a CEO, but later denied most of the allegations.
Now, 10 years on from the case, Fraser-Kirk has spoken out for the first time about what she says she endured – not just the harassment itself, but what it was like to be sidelined as the company went into damage-control mode. “At 25 years of age it was a lot to handle,” Fraser-Kirk tells Marie claire exclusively from the London home she shares with her husband and son. “I think I handled myself as well as can be expected considering a lot of people wanted to write me off as a bimbo golddigger. If that had happened to me today, I would have simply told him to fuck off. But it didn’t happen to me when I knew who I was as a woman, who understood her worth, who felt confident professionally. It happened at the beginning of my career when I was naive and just starting out.”
Fraser-Kirk is proud of her decision to speak out at the time, but the personal toll was immense. “I was attacked by the media and general public with my reputation slandered, while colleagues – who knew what was happening – watched on silently. It hurt – a lot,” she says. “I had no idea how hard speaking up would ultimately be, and the extent people would go to belittle and shame me.
“Back then, the media and general public opinion were far less accepting of women who tried to bring attention to sexual harassment in the workplace,” she continues. “It was far easier to scapegoat and vilify the person airing the issues rather than face the issues themselves. I was dealing with people discrediting me on every level professionally and personally, at a really young age. I was scared, petrified actually, and why? I didn’t do anything wrong, he did.”
The case dominated national headlines for months. Yet a decade later, it appears Australian workplaces – particularly large corporations – have learnt few lessons from the allegations, with sexual harassment seemingly as prevalent today as it was then.
Even the ongoing #MeToo movement, which began in 2017, hasn’t seemed to have changed much. FraserKirk despairs that so many Australian women are still having to put up with the same sort of violation and power play in the workplace that she says she experienced – and the solutions seem a long time coming. “I don’t think we’ve cracked a way for a person with no voice to have the confidence to stand up and report what they’re experiencing,” she says of the shielded way that sexual harassment cases are still being handled in Australia.
“Boardrooms still don’t think it can affect them, that it matters, that they can be held accountable,” she says. “We have an obligation to those starting in their careers to show the way. I believe we have a duty as women to look out for one another – not simply palm off incidents as no big deal, or ignore them and hope they go away on their own. They won’t.”
The facts would suggest it’s a fair assessment. A 2018 Australian Human Rights Commission national survey found one in three people had been sexually harassed at work in the past five years, yet only 17 per cent made a formal report or complaint. The “marked increase in the prevalence rate” compared to previous surveys prompted the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, to launch a landmark inquiry into the issue.
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