Sexual harassment in the City

It's not just Westminster.

The sexual harassment allegations against Lib Dem peer Lord Rennard and the accusations levelled at the Lib Dems that they ignored the complaints against him, have drawn attention to how women are treated in Westminster.

A piece in today's Guardian claims that "many women at Westminster…complain of encountering neanderthal behaviour among prominent parliamentarians" and lists a number of incidents of sexual harassment faced by women MPs, aides, lobbyists and journalists. It blamed the 'antiquated rules' that govern parliament, with one female victim of sexual harassment saying that the men involved understand that they are in a position of "power" and that a woman hoping for career advancement is unlikely to kick up a fuss.

It's not only Westminster that's governed by these rules, but the City too. When I was fifteen and doing my GCSEs, I did two weeks work experience at a magic circle law firm. One of the trainees charged with assisting me in operating the photocopier and other important tasks, started behaving increasingly inappropriately towards me. It was a relief to leave after two weeks, and even a decade on, I cringe at the memory.

I was too young then to understand just how wrong his behaviour was. I found the whole situation deeply embarrassing — but then, when you're 15 life in general is deeply embarrassing. I like to think I'd launch a formal complaint if it happened today, but it's rarely easy to make this kind of complaint about someone in power — particularly when they are in charge of your career advancement.

A (male) friend of mine working at an investment bank has confided in me how difficult he finds the 'banter' at work — especially when he sees how uncomfortable it makes his one female colleague, who is forced to either play along or risk being sidelined in the team. I will never forget a female former-RAF captain who now works as an investment manager telling me that she experienced far more sexism in the City than in the army.

I don't want to suggest sexual harassment isn't rife elsewhere — waitressing, I remember, was awful for it too. But, with their large HR departments, big City law firms and banks have many more resources than small businesses to clamp down on inappropriate behaviour.

Whether you're a 15-year old intern, a 35 year old associate, or a 55 year old partner, it can be both embarrassing — and potentially career-damaging — to report incidents of sexual harassment. That's why it's so important that if HR executives, or other employees in senior positions, spot their colleagues behaving inappropriately, they speak out.

This piece first appeared on Spears.

City of London. Photograph: Getty Images

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

I dined behind the Houses of Parliament in my sexually connected foursome

My wife and I would sometimes dine out with another couple. We did not always check the significance of the date. 

I am self-employed and find that working from home, setting your own schedule, the days generally blur into each other, with weekends holding no significance, and public holidays, when those who are employed in factories, offices or shops get time off, meaning nothing. I am often surprised to go out and find the streets empty of traffic because it is some national day of observance, such as Christmas, that I wasn’t aware of. I find myself puzzled as to why the shops are suddenly full of Easter eggs or pancake batter.

Growing up in a Communist household, we had a distinct dislike for this kind of manufactured marketing opportunity anyway. I remember the time my mother tried to make me feel guilty because I’d done nothing for her on Mother’s Day and I pointed out that it was she who had told me that Mother’s Day was a cynical creation of the greetings card monopolies and the floral industrial complex.

Valentine’s Day is one of those I never see coming. It’s the one day of the year when even the worst restaurants are completely booked out by couples attempting to enjoy a romantic evening. Even those old-fashioned cafés you’ll find still lurking behind railway stations and serving spaghetti with bread and butter will tell you there’s a waiting list if you leave it late to reserve a table.

In the late 1980s my wife and I would sometimes dine out with another couple, he a writer and she a TV producer. One particular place we liked was a restaurant attached to a 1930s block of flats, near the Houses of Parliament, where the endless corridors were lined with blank doors, behind which you sensed awful things happened. The steel dining room dotted with potted palm trees overlooked a swimming pool, and this seemed terribly sophisticated to us even if it meant all your overpriced food had a vague taste of chlorine.

The four of us booked to eat there on 14 February, not realising the significance of the date. We found at every other table there was a single couple, either staring adoringly into each other’s eyes or squabbling.

As we sat down I noticed we were getting strange looks from our fellow diners. Some were sort of knowing, prompting smiles and winks; others seemed more outraged. The staff, too, were either simpering or frosty. After a while we realised what was going on: it was Valentine’s Day! All the other customers had assumed that we were a sexually connected foursome who had decided to celebrate our innovative relationship by having dinner together on this special date.

For the four of us, the smirking attention set up a strange dynamic: after that night it always felt like we were saying something seedy to each other. “Do you want to get together on Sunday?” I’d say to one of them on the phone, and then find myself blushing. “I’ll see if we can fit it in,” they’d reply, and we would both giggle nervously.

Things became increasingly awkward between us, until in the end we stopped seeing them completely. 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496