Sexist underbelly in the spotlight

The Roger Sutton case should be a lightning rod for change in how we treat each other.

It highlights our country’s sexist underbelly. It demonstrates that: gender issues are complicated; the context within which things happen is important; and as a nation we are confused and divided about what’s right and what’s wrong in our relationships.

Our sexist culture is pervasive if often below the public radar. We know it’s there due to the number of people saying what Roger Sutton did wasn’t too bad and the attacks on the complainant (social media has joined talkback radio as a great insight into culture). It’s variation on the “What were you wearing when you were raped?” theme. An independent investigation upheld the majority of the woman’s complaint. The State Services Commissioner said Roger Sutton was guilty of serious misconduct. What a brave woman to complain, knowing how this would likely play out.

Then there’s the support for Roger Sutton from high profile leaders. Yes he has worked hard, given much, and he’s a loved husband. Yes we know Christchurch has lost a leader, but he needed to be called out for his behaviour.

The State Services Commission’s announcement bungling surely tells us sexism is alive and well in parts of our bureaucracy – how else can it be explained?

Despite the underbelly – I believe there’s more people working hard to make sure they treat each other as equals than not, and most sexist people would shift their attitudes with greater understanding of its serious impact on men and women.

In more good news there are numerous efforts by individuals, Government and non-government organisations, corporates and communities to reduce harassment of all types. We just need greater pick-up and courage to get results.

So New Zealand, how about this as a simple next step? Let’s extend the ‘It’s Not Okay’ domestic violence slogan to unacceptable workplace practices and sexism. If it’s unclear that what you’re witnessing or doing is acceptable, ask “Is it okay”? Further good news – you can start today to do your bit.

Roger Sutton said in his controversial resignation announcement that, as a result of his learnings, he will be a better person and no longer tolerate hurtful behaviour when he sees it in others. If he is the leader his supporters say – perhaps he will be the lightning rod through his next steps.


Sue McCabe is Chief Executive of the National Council of Women of New Zealand. The council, established in 1896, works to progress gender equality. Visit for more information.

One Response to “Sexist underbelly in the spotlight”

  1. Louise 24 November 2014 at 1:54 pm # Reply

    I like your idea of asking “Is it ok?” when encountering workplace sexism. But then what do you do next?

    With the Roger Sutton case top of mind my (male) partner described a recent situation in his workplace where a male colleague made a sexist comment to a female colleague.

    He said she held her own with her response but he regretted not speaking up at the time. I suggested he contact her to say that he thought it was inappropriate and to apologise for not saying anything.

    I appreciate it could be difficult to speak up at the time as we want to avoid confrontation. Using humour could help. But also letting the victim know that you don’t think it was ok would help them feel supported.

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