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26 February 2013

Sexual harassment in the City

It's not just Westminster.

By Sophie McBain

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.

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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.