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.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.