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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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation