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.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA