Why don't women speak out about sexual harassment? Here's why

Whistleblowers are often incredibly badly treated - even when they have sheaves of documents to prove wrongdoing. Imagine being a whistleblower when you know that half your listeners don't think that being patted on the leg sounds like such a big deal, an

There's a line in Nick Cohen's blog about the allegations about Lord Rennard (and the earlier SWP scandal) that really hit home:

I have one further point, which I accept it is difficult for a man to make. If women in either the Liberal Democrats or the Socialist Workers Party feel that the hierarchy is brushing their grievances aside for the sake of political convenience they should not just go to the police. They should also think of going to a TV studio and making a fuss. I know, I know, easy to say and hard to do. But there is nothing the Comrade Deltas and Comrade Cleggs fear more than a woman speaking to camera, live and on air.

Much though I appreciate Cohen's wider point - that internal investigations into sex abuse allegations are often compromised - I did balk a little at his suggestion that a victim of any crime related to sex - assault, harassment or discrimination - "out" herself on TV.

I found myself asking: if I were in that position, would I?

And then I thought: hang on, I have been in that position. Or something near it.

As I went through school and university, I worked in lots of places; a shop, a warehouse, a taxi dispatch office, a burger van, several newsrooms. In more than one of them I found "flirty" (older, male) bosses and inappropriate comments, although thankfully I can't remember anyone trying to touch me up, or worse.

Did I say anything? Yes, I grumbled to other people at the same level as me. To the "authorities"? No. Who are these mysterious authorities? In many places, the groper is the ultimate authority: he is the boss, and there's no one to complain to about him. The police? Come off it. They are obviously the people to report serious sex assault allegations to, but what can they reasonably be expected to do about derogatory comments, touching employees up by the photocopier, or after the Christmas drinks party? If you're young - your parents? Hell no. Who wants to talk to their parents about sex?

Allegations of sexual harassment are so difficult to deal with because they are about two things: hierarchy, and shame. Whistleblowers are often incredibly badly treated - even when they have sheaves of documents to prove wrongdoing. Imagine being a whistleblower when you know that half your listeners don't think that being patted on the leg sounds like such a big deal, anyway. 

Meanwhile, as a woman in the workplace, one of the safest strategies to pursue is to deny your gender entirely. Be one of the boys. Watch your every move, and every outfit, so that you can never be accused of using your femininity to get ahead. Because the same people who don't take harassment allegations seriously are also those who think that young women have it easy, being able to flirt with the boss. They don't see that those two things are sides of the same coin: reflections of workplaces where the power is concentrated in the hands of older men.    

When pretending not to be a woman seems to be the best way to be treated as well as a man, complaining about harassment would break the spell. Suddenly, you are exposed: you have drawn attention to your female body. It would be, more than anything else, embarrassing. Demeaning. Shameful. Even if you're saying "he touched my breast", you're still talking to total strangers about your breasts. Most of us are fairly reluctant to do that in public.

Meanwhile, I feel embarrassed even writing this. . . because who wants to be seen as weak? Who would choose to be a victim? And yet that's the situation into which probably every woman in Britain has been forced at one time or another, whether in the workplace or in the street, or at home. Never feeling like that is a luxury that most men don't even appreciate.

So, Nick - maybe it would be the best thing for society if a woman with allegations to make would do so to camera, live on air. But which of us can say that would be the best thing for the woman?

Photo: Flickr/Sk8geek, used under Creative Commons

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty Images
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Let 2016 be the year that Ireland gives women the right to choose

As we commemorate and celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising next year, we must remember that while the constitution was hard fought for it cannot be static. 

There is mounting pressure for the Irish government to look into decriminalising abortion. It has been growing since Savita Halappanavar’s death three years ago in a hospital in Galway due to complications during pregnancy. She was refused an abortion because Irish law forbids it. Earlier this month Irish women tweeted the Taoiseach Enda Kenny about their periods using the #repealthe8th in an attempt to bring attention to the issue. Now last Friday, Amnesty International published a letter calling for the decriminalisation of abortion internationally, signed by 838 doctors, most importantly this included some of Ireland’s leading healthcare professionals. This is the perfect time for political parties to commit to holding a referendum on the issue if elected they are elected and form the next government in 2016.

One part of the Irish legislative process I have always been proud of is the use of referendum and bringing serious questions to the electorate. It protects the constitution from changing on political whims or based on the beliefs of whatever party is in government. As such it remains a document of the people, it was after all put to vote before it was instituted in 1937. It also passes issues, which have proved contentious and in other countries have relied on the sympathy of lawmakers, by popular consent. Same sex marriage was legalised in a beautiful display of support, 62% of the electorate came out to vote for equality. Social media was full of pictures of Irish people living abroad going home especially for the referendum.

There has previously been a number referendums on abortion and following Savita’s death, the  Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act 2013 was brought in which allowed abortion if the mother’s life was in danger. It was important and a sensible measure to bring in. However it resulted in serious splits and some contentious situations. Lucinda Creighton defied Fine Gael’s whip and found herself stripped of her ministry and ostracised, leading to the creation of her new party Renua Ireland. Creighton was recently asked if she would agree with aborting baby Hitler. This is the ridiculous side of the debate which doesn’t help either side. Many thought that the 2013 act was too quickly done and not properly explained or understood. A referendum is the best way to avoid this. The question can be explained properly and debated to give people access to more information. Once passed, it is done so with consent from a majority of the electorate and this makes it much more difficult to argue against its legitimacy than if it is forced through. The result is also binding regardless of the current government’s stance, you can have a second vote but you can’t force people to vote the other way.

Public support for legalising or extending abortion rights is there. A RedC poll for Amnesty International in July showed 67 per cent of people thought abortion should be decriminalised while 81 per cent thought it should be allowed in more situations. 45 per cent were in favour of abortion whenever a woman wanted it. It is not an overwhelming figure but if 45 per cent of people believe this should be instituted then they ought to be listened to and the question brought to the country.

Realistically, nothing will be done before the next election which is expected to be held in early 2016. However now is an excellent time for political parties to examine their stance on abortion and look at holding a referendum and making it part of their manifestoes. The new government will then be in a position to announce a new referendum on abortion as soon as they are in power. The last one was held in 2002, meaning that many young people particularly women at the height of their fertility have never actually had a say on this matter.

As we commemorate and celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising next year, we must remember that while the constitution was hard fought for it cannot be static. The world that its authors inhabited is not the same as the one we live in today. The constitution has changed to bring peace to Northern Ireland, to legalise divorce and same sex marriage, let 2016 be the year it changes to give women the freedom to choose.