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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Would you jump off a cliff if someone told you to? One time, I did

I was walking across the bridge in Matlock park, which is about 12 feet high, with a large group of other kids from my year, in the pouring rain.

Ever heard the phrase, “Would you jump off a cliff if they told you to?” It was the perpetual motif of my young teenage years: my daily escapades, all of which sprang from a need to impress a peer, were distressing and disgusting my parents.

At 13, this tomboyish streak developed further. I wrote urgent, angry poems containing lines like: “Who has desire for something higher than jumping for joy and smashing a light?” I wanted to push everything to its limits, to burst up through the ceiling of the small town I lived in and land in America, or London, or at least Derby. This was coupled with a potent and thumping appetite for attention.

At the height of these feelings, I was walking across the bridge in Matlock park, which is about 12 feet high, with a large group of other kids from my year, in the pouring rain. One of the cool girls started saying that her cousin had jumped off the bridge into the river and had just swum away – and that one of us should do it.

Then someone said that I should do it, because I always did that stuff. More people started saying I should. The group drew to a halt. Someone offered me a pound, which was the clincher. “I’m going to jump!” I yelled, and clambered on to the railing.

There wasn’t a complete hush, which annoyed me. I looked down. It was raining very hard and I couldn’t see the bottom of the riverbed. “It looks really deep because of the rain,” someone said. I told myself it would just be like jumping into a swimming pool. It would be over in a few minutes, and then everyone would know I’d done it. No one could ever take it away from me. Also, somebody would probably buy me some Embassy Filter, and maybe a Chomp.

So, surprising even myself, I jumped.

I was about three seconds in the air. I kept my eyes wide open, and saw the blur of trees, the white sky and my dyed red hair. I landed with my left foot at a 90-degree angle to my left ankle, and all I could see was red. “I’ve gone blind!” I thought, then realised it was my hair, which was plastered on to my eyes with rain.

When I pushed it out of the way and looked around, there was no one to be seen. They must have started running as I jumped. Then I heard a voice from the riverbank – a girl called Erin Condron, who I didn’t know very well. She pushed me home on someone’s skateboard, because my ankle was broken.

When we got to my house, I waited for Mum to say, “Would you jump off another cliff if they told you to?” but she was ashen. I had to lie that Dave McDonald’s brother had pushed me in the duck pond. And that’s when my ankle started to throb. I never got the pound, but I will always be grateful to Erin Condron. 

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser