REPOST ARTICLE SOURCE: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/oct/09/office-harassment-things-really-changed
It was the mid-1970s, and a group of women activists at Cornell University in the US were organising a “speak-out”, and wanted to define their subject matter appropriately. They considered “sexual intimidation”, “sexual coercion” and “sexual exploitation on the job”, before finally arriving at sexual harassment. That was it. That was the term that described what women had been experiencing in offices and factories the world over, a description that could encompass everything: the suggestive, slyly intimidating remarks from bosses, the badgering for sexual favours, the constant comments on a woman’s appearance, the groping, knee-touching, bottom-slapping shame of it all.
The problem was ripe to be named. In the past week, as part of the fall-out from Jimmy Savile‘s alleged predations, there have been constant reminders of that era, of the casual sexism, often tipping into outright misogyny, that affected so many women in the workplace. DJ Liz Kershaw, for instance, has said she was routinely groped by another presenter when working at Radio 1 in the 1980s; while broadcasting, she would suddenly feel “wandering hands up my jumper fondling my breasts”.
The broadcaster Sandi Toksvig has also said she was groped “on air, by a famous individual” in that decade, in her early 20s, and “everybody thought it was amusing. There was a sort of shrugged-shoulder approach to the whole thing”. In response, Janet Street-Porter wrote that, in the media back then, she knew of one comedian who “would wave his penis at horrified women in the makeup department”.
These comments have, predictably, been dismissed by some. The former breakfast presenter Mike Smith has said, for instance, of Kershaw’s claims about the atmosphere of Radio 1 back then that it was actually “more camp than predatory”. And others, while accepting that sexual harassment was rife in the 70s and 80s, have suggested it has all changed for women in the workplace now. The implication is that a combination of awareness, women’s growing economic power and legislation that began with the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act and has been updated repeatedly, has stamped out the problem.
Laura Bates, who set up the website Everyday Sexism earlier this year, isn’t so sure. Like those 1970s speak-outs, her site allows women to share their experiences, and over the course of six months 7,500 entries have poured in, “thousands of which pertain specifically to workplace harassment, workplace sexism and sadly, in many cases, workplace sexual assault and even rape”. “What I don’t know is whether the prevalence has diminished or not [since the 70s],” she says. “But I do know that an Equal Opportunities Commission report in 2000 said that 50% of women still experience sexual harassment in the workplace.”
Strong, recent statistical evidence is lacking, but a survey of 3,400 women conducted for the website AdviseMeBarrister.com earlier this year found half had been harassed in the workplace, and, of those who had, four in 10 had been touched in a way that made them feel uncomfortable. A 2011 poll for the Washington Post and ABC News found a quarter of women had been harassed at work. And the experiences that women report on Bates’s website horribly echo those from the 70s.
One woman writes that while working on a film shoot a couple of years ago, one of the directors “slapped my arse to get my attention”; a male colleague she discussed this with later said she “should lighten up” and take it as a joke. Another woman was asked by her boss, in front of 30 colleagues, “if I wax my crack”; another heard a global leader say to a female colleague who was doing some filing that “he liked a woman on her knees”; one was asked, at interview, about her sex life, and told she was expected to be “tits and arse”; still another wrote that, although she is over 40 and a professional who dresses conservatively, “in the course of one business day I had one client comment on my looks and figure, and another business contact comment he ‘liked my tits’ and ask about my bikini line.”
But surely the boob-groping is over? That was the response of one of my colleagues when discussing this matter. Surely that, at least, was left behind in the 70s? Siobhan Endean, equalities officer at Unite, laughs at the thought, and says she has plenty of “examples where women have been physically attacked in the workplace, definitely. I don’t think that has changed.” Bates agrees and quotes more examples that have been sent to her. “‘Every time I climbed up the ladder into the storeroom, my boss would slap me on the bottom. I needed the job, so I didn’t say anything for a very long time.’ Or, here’s another one: ‘Once raped by a colleague on a night out, guess who lost their job? (Not him).’ There are hundreds of them.”
So why is there this idea that workplaces are so much better now? Part of it, perhaps, is that sexual harassment affects women at different times in their lives. Endean says it is a particular problem, for instance, for young female apprentices in male-dominated workplaces and, anecdotally, many of us are affected by the issue when we start work in our late teens and early 20s. It’s an issue of power. As individual women get older and more personally powerful, sexual harassment often has less effect on them, and so they believe it has been left behind in another era.
This is compounded by the fact that harassment seems as difficult to speak out about as ever. Endean says that by the time harassment claims reach her union, women are often “off work sick with stress, or finding a way out of the organisation, or are having disciplinary procedures taken against them for non-performance”. Disciplinary procedures against women who bring complaints happen quite regularly, she says. “That’s what tends to happen: there’s quite often an aggressive response. If women raise the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace they will be told: ‘It’s not because you’re a woman, it’s because you’re not performing.’ Or they’ll end up in the malicious complaints process. I’ve had to deal with a case of that just this morning.”
Not only is classic workplace sexual harassment still going on, says Bates, but technology has created new forms; in the space of six months, she has seen several thousand abusive emails, including rape threats and death threats. As those 1975 feminists knew, what’s important is to stop the silence around the issue. “I think there’s an idea that women have to put up and shut up,” says Bates. “They’re told they’re whining, being uptight, frigid, sometimes even blamed for causing it in the first place. And, of course, we’re still living in a world where women haven’t achieved gender parity in either pay or the workplace, or in female representation at the top of big business, parliament, the judiciary. So I think women are still in an unequal position, where to bring up issues of sexual harassment and to speak out against them risks worsening an already existing prejudice.” One that is, apparently, as troubling as ever.