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Legal history reveals that even in the 1980s, it wasn’t “OK” to sexually harass women

The law has been clear for 30 years. 

In March 2016, just after I was selected to stand in the Greater London Assembly elections for the fledgling Women’s Equality Party, I was invited to address the Million Women Rise march to end male violence against women and girls. Thrilled at the prospect of giving a speech in Trafalgar Square, I quickly accepted, despite feeling like an imposter because I’ve never practised criminal law. 

But was I? Reflecting, I realised that in 17 years as an employment and equalities barrister, among hundreds of sexual harassment cases, I had advised on three workplace rapes. I grew concerned that mainstream culture does not seem to understand that many acts of sexual harassment which lead to Employment Tribunal claims are also criminal acts of sexual assault. Further, many commentators do not seem to understand that all workplace sexual harassment is serious misconduct. 

In the media, a lot of discussion has focused on rating the severity of individual acts. Are women who speak out against the sexist “joke”, or the unwanted hand on the knee, fragile snowflakes making a fuss over a bit of slap and tickle? Do they steal the limelight from rape survivors? Are we watching a witch-hunt of gallant flirts around parliament?

Michael Fallon apologised for groping the journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer and the next day resigned as defence secretary, saying that while many accusations were false, his behaviour had “fallen below the high standards” expected of a minister. When he resigned, he told the BBC: “The culture has changed over the years, what might have been acceptable 15, ten years ago is clearly not acceptable now.”

Working practices and attitudes in parliament, where hundreds of people work every day, appear to be decades behind other businesses and public bodies with equivalent staff numbers.

In my professional experience, the vast majority of working men from all walks of life have no difficulty avoiding sexually harassing colleagues. The best lay definition I’ve come across was from a refuse collector who told me he had given his junior colleague a formal warning for “being a lech”.

Legally, sexual harassment is unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating the woman’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for her. The current statutory definition derives from a 2002 EU Directive but protection against harassment has a longer legal history. 

For those of us who were born and have always worked under the protections of equality law, it’s hard to imagine that prior to the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, it was lawful and normal to pay a woman less than a man for doing the same job. Then, there was no legal protection against sexual harassment at work. Older women who worked nearly all describe patronising, vulgar, sexist remarks, routine bum-pinches, and being disempowered by their precarious employment status. The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 triggered a major cultural change, which did not pass by even the most traditional of men.

In 1979, the legal scholar Catharine Mackinnon published her seminal text “Sexual Harassment of Working Women”, arguing that sexual harassment was sex discrimination. Her analysis influenced the early case law interpreting the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. In 1986, in Porcelli v Strathclyde Regional Council, the courts made clear that sexual harassment through sexist bullying was an unlawful form of direct sex discrimination.

Mrs Porcelli was protected from unpleasant conduct by her colleagues with sexual overtones, including deliberately brushing against her body and making sexually suggestive remarks, because it was less favourable treatment on grounds of her sex. The court reasoned they would not have treated an equally-disliked man in the same way. Using quaint language, the court described sexual harassment as a man using a “sexual sword” to attack a woman.

For the last 30 years, the British courts have therefore protected working women from sexist bullying in words, groping and propositioning, as well as the most serious criminal sexual assaults, through case law based on the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. So, legally, things were not so different ten, 15, or 30 years ago, though standard practice, enforcement and cultural attitudes are another matter.

Employment law lets women recover monetary compensation from employers which fail to protect them from sexual harassment by male colleagues. The risk of being sued and having to pay compensation – and maybe a wish to support women workers – led most large employers to draft dignity at work and disciplinary policies in the 1980s and 1990s. More than 15 years ago, it was clear, at least on paper, that sexual harassment was unacceptable. Far from setting an example, parliament lags behind both big business and the public sector with its casual attitude.

The serious workplace misconduct which constitutes sexual harassment is compensated on a scale related to the woman’s upset feelings (which can include psychiatric injury) plus her financial loss. The legal system recognises that sexist “jokes”, bullying and harassing – which some commentators seem to regard as trivial – can and do wreck women’s incomes, careers and, sometimes, mental health, as can serious sexual assault and rape.

I am relieved that my work has not yet involved me in a murder case, but I now see clearly that all workplace sexual harassment is male violence against women and it always has been. It is totally different from how a flirtatious man tries to please and entertain a woman, responsive to her cues.

Right now, my biggest concern is the most vulnerable, disempowered and silenced women in Parliament. It is notable that the brave women who first spoke out publicly about their experiences of sexual harassment by MPs and prominent party political activists are nearly all privileged and powerful, whether by age, political seniority or standing, race, or class background. Even they are now experiencing a cruel misogynistic backlash. Alice Bailey, a former House of Commons bar manager, has now come forward to allege a campaign of obnoxious harassment by MPs. I hope that Westminster’s remaining bar staff, cleaners, cooks and waitresses, working in the most insecure, unstable and worst-paid roles, never get sexually harassed at work, but Bailey’s story and my professional experience make me doubt it.

Harini Iyengar is an employment and equalities barrister and spokeswoman for the Women’s Equality Party

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It might be a pseudo science, but students take the threat of eugenics seriously

Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudo-science to bolster their political arguments.

In January, the London Student published my investigation, which showed that the controversial columnist Toby Young attended the London Conference on Intelligence, secretly held at University College London. Shortly afterwards, I mentioned to someone in a pub smoking area that I go to UCL. “Did you hear about the eugenics conference?” he asked me.

He was an international student from Africa. “I applied to UCL partly because I thought it was safer than other universities, but now I’m not so sure. I worry about how many other professors hold the same opinions.”

A protest outside the UCL Provost’s office after the article was published attracted scores of students. “I have a right to come to university and not fear for my safety,” one told the crowd, exasperated. “Nothing has been done, and that’s what really scares me.”

While hecklers derided the protest as an overreaction, students have good reason for taking eugenics seriously. UCL has a long history of support for scientific racism, beginning with Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who, among other achievements, founded the science of eugenics. UCL’s Galton Chair in National Eugenics, which survived under that name until 1996, was first held by Karl Pearson, another ardent racial eugenicist. Pearson talked about creating a nation from “the better stocks” while conducting war with the “inferior races”, and in 1925 co-authored an article published in the Annals of Eugenics warning of the dangers of allowing Russian and Polish Jewish children into Britain. The London Conference on Intelligence was held in a building named in Pearson’s honour.

Eugenics is most closely associated in the popular imagination with fascism, and the twisted ideology of the Nazi party. Yet racial eugenics was closely linked to wider European imperialism, as illustrated by one object in the Galton collection, contributed by Pearson. Dr. Eugene Fischer’s hair colour scale is a selection of 30 different synthetic hair varieties in a tin box, a continuous scale from European to African. Fischer’s work was used in the early 20th century by Germany to ascertain the whiteness of Namibia’s mixed-race population, even before it was used by the Nazis to design the Nuremburg Laws. In apartheid South Africa, Afrikaans researchers used his tools as late as the 1960s.

Its importance to the imperial project meant that eugenics enjoyed widespread support in British scientific and political establishments. Galton’s Eugenics Society, set up to spread eugenicist ideas and push for eugenic policies, had branches in Birmingham, Liverpool, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton and Glasgow, drawing hundreds of academics to their meetings. It was a movement of the educated middle class, including leading progressives such as John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes and the Fabians. Society presidents hailed from the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and UCL.

With this history in mind, it is easier to understand why students take the UCL eugenics scandal so seriously. Science journalist Angela Saini, who has been researching the history of race science for her upcoming book, argues that the problem lies in the co-opting of pseudoscience for political purposes. “These people are on the fringes, they’re not respected in mainstream academia,” she says. “The problem is when people like Toby Young come in from outside and use these studies to promote their own political agenda.” (Young said he attended the conference purely for research).

The rise of the far-right in Europe and America also means that the tolerance afforded to racist pseudoscience is not a purely academic question. Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudoscience to bolster their political arguments.

Our investigation into the London Conference on Intelligence uncovered the involvement of at least 40 academics from at least 29 different universities in 15 different countries. Among these was the Oxford academic Noah Carl, a postdoctoral researcher in the social sciences at Nuffield College, who has spoken twice at the London Conference on Intelligence. Carl has also written several papers for Emil Kirkegaard’s OpenPsych, which include two looking at whether larger Muslim populations make Islamist terrorism more likely, and one suggesting that British stereotypes towards immigrants are “largely accurate”.

One external reviewer responded to the last paper by stating that: “It is never OK to publish research this bad, even in an inconsequential online journal.” Nevertheless, the paper was featured by conservative US website The Daily Caller, under a picture of Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. The far right European Free West Media cited the paper to claim that “criminal elements are represented by certain ethnic groups”, and on the blog of a far-right French presidential candidate under the headline “Study validates prejudices”. It even ended up on InfoWars, one of the most popular news websites in the USA, and can be found circulating on far-right corners of Reddit. The fact that Carl is linked to Oxford University was mentioned frequently in the coverage, providing legitimacy to the political opinions presented.

Another contributor to the London Conference on Intelligence was Adam Perkins of King’s College London, whose book The Welfare Trait proposed that “aggressive, rule-breaking and anti-social personality characteristics” can be “bred out” of society by reducing child support for those on the lowest incomes. Perkins actively engaged with far-right media outlets in promoting his book, appearing in hour-long interviews with Stefan Molyneux and Tara McCarthy. Molyneux doesn’t “view humanity as a single species because we are not all the same”, and argues that “ordinary Africans were better off under colonialism”. McCarthy was banned from YouTube for alleging a conspiracy to commit “white genocide”, and supports deporting naturalised citizens and “killing them if they resist”. Perkins himself attracted criticism last year for tweeting, alongside data from Kirkegaard, that Trump’s Muslim ban “makes sense in human capital terms”.

Perkins is not the first KCL academic to use his platform to promote contested science in the far-right press. In the 1980s, the Pioneer Fund supported the work of Hans Eysenck, whose work has been credited by his biographer with helping to “revive the confidence” of “right-wing racialist groups” such as the National Front by providing an “unexpected vindication from a respectable scientific quarter”. The original mandate of the Pioneer Fund was the pursuit of “race betterment”; it is considered a hate group by the US civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center. KCL did not respond to a request for comment.

An association with a high profile university can help bigots to legitimise their beliefs, but the infiltration of mainstream academia by eugenicists is even more complex than this.

After we exposed his involvement with eugenicists, Toby Young pointed out that the conference at which he actually spoke, that of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR), was “super-respectable” and attended by “numerous world-renowned academics”.

He is entirely correct. The ISIR is home to many great scientists, and its journal Intelligence is one of the most respected in its field. Yet Richard Lynn, who has called for the “phasing out” of the “populations of incompetent cultures”, serves on the editorial board of Intelligence, along with fellow director of the Pioneer Fund Gerhard Meisenberg, who edits Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly. Two other board members are Heiner Rindermann and Jan te Nijenhuis, frequent contributors to Mankind Quarterly and the London Conference on Intelligence. Rindermann, James Thompson, Michael Woodley of Menie and Aurelio Figueredo, all heavily implicated in the London Conference on Intelligencehelped to organise recent ISIR conferences. Linda Gottfredson, a Pioneer Fund grantee and former president of the ISIR, famously authored a letter in the Wall Street Journal defending Charles Murray’s assertion that black people are genetically disposed to an average IQ of “around 85”, compared to 100 for whites.

The tolerance afforded to eugenicists threatens the reputation of respectable scientists. Stephen Pinker, the world-renowned cognitive psychologist, spoke at last year’s ISIR conference. Another speaker at the conference, however, was the aforementioned Emil Kirkegaard, a “self-taught” eugenicist who has written a “thought experiment” which discusses whether raping a drugged child could be defended, and whose research into OKCupid made international headlines for its “grossly unprofessional, unethical and reprehensible” use of personal data.

Saini spoke to Richard Haier, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, about the involvement of Lynn and Meisenberg. “He defended their involvement on the basis of academic freedom,” she recalled. “He said he’d prefer to let the papers and data speak for themselves.”

Publishing well-researched papers that happen to be written by eugenicists is one thing, but putting them in positions of editorial control is quite another. “Having researched Lynn and Meisenberg, I fail to understand how Intelligence can justify having these two on the editorial board,” Saini said. “I find that very difficult to understand. Academic freedom does not require that these people are given any more space than their research demands – which for a discredited idea like racial eugenics is frankly minuscule.” I contacted the ISIR but at time of publishing had received no response.

UCL has published several statements about the London Conference on Intelligence since my investigation. In the latest, released on 18 January 2018, the university said it hoped to finish an investigation within weeks. It said it did not and had not endorsed the conference, and had formally complained to YouTube about the use of a doctored UCL logo on videos posted online. UCL’s President described eugenics as “complete nonsense” and added: “I am appalled by the concept of white supremacy and will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence.” UCL management has also agreed to engage with students concerned about buildings being named after eugenicists.

UCL’s statement also stressed its obligation “to protect free speech on campus, within the law, even if the views expressed are inconsistent with the values and views of UCL”.

Yet there is a direct link between the tolerance of eugenicists in academia and the political rise of the far-right. Journals and universities that allow their reputations to be used to launder or legitimate racist pseudo-science bear responsibility when that pseudo-science is used for political ends. As one UCL student put it: “This is not about freedom of speech – all violence begins with ideas. We feel threatened, and we want answers.”

Ben van der Merwe is a student journalist.