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1 November 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 4:52pm

I faced a backlash for speaking out about Lord Rennard, so I know why women don’t come forward

When I accused the Lib Dem peer, I wrote myself a note: “You are doing this to make it better for the next generation.”

By Alison Goldsworthy

A few years ago, a senior politician called me and suggested the only reason I was considering speaking out about my experiences with Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard was because I wanted a seat in the House of Lords. Joining a perpetrator in their place of work would be the last thing a victim wants.  It was the first hint of the sobering lessons that were to come.

When I was a 21-year-old candidate, Rennard had shoved his hands down my knickers. (He continues to deny this). Despite being one of many women to come forward, a tsunami of incompetence by the Lib Dems resulted in all those who publicly complained leaving politics. Meanwhile, Lord Rennard continues to pass legislation, and pose for pictures with politicians who should know better.

There is little unusual or special in my tale. As the outpouring of revelations in recent weeks show, from Harvey Weinstein to Westminster, they follow a creepily familiar playbook. Except this time, some perpetrators may not be left to continue.

When people make one bad decision, odds are, they are making more. So, when challenged about grabbing a breast, intimating a promotion in return for a night of passion, or appearing in front of you naked in a work meeting, the chances of a perpetrator suddenly showing good judgement are slim. Instead a repetitive story emerges:

Get challenged. Deny it

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Get shown proof it happened. Say it was a harmless bit of fun. A one off.

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Get shown proof it was a pattern. Say it is a hit job.

The accusers hold their ground. Seek to smear them

At any of these points, perpetrators could admit it, say sorry and take the lesser consequences. They don’t, because they make bad decisions. 

These aren’t situations where negotiation is effective. One party is going to win and one is going to lose. It will end with someone leaving. That shouldn’t be the victim, but it too often is.

Before Channel 4 broadcast my story, I wrote myself a note, then squirreled it away. “You are doing this to make it better for the next generation. Don’t let others feel how you have.” When you stick your head above the parapet people attack you. That playbook again. Part of the power, the same fear and horror abusers leverage to keep you quiet, is that they can induce emotional responses. Anger, fear, shame. All designed to distract from what you are doing this for. Over time I learned to hold that note, read it and deny others the power to control me.  No one should have more power over the decisions you make and how you feel, than you do.

Successful challenges, when they do come, are rarely on their own. In the related cases of bullied employees, US Academic, Dr. Pam Lutgen-Sandvik quantified the power of allies. She found those who spoke out alone about bullying were fired in 20 per cent of cases. The bullies were fired in 27 per cent of cases. When people banded together to complain, 58 per cent of abusers and none of the bullied were fired. Retaining power over how you feel is aided by having good allies around you.

I was on the way to meet my in-laws for the first time when I told my now husband what had happened. And I explained the impending shit-storm I was desperate to avoid. Pulling the car to the hard shoulder, he told me to get out, hugged me, and said how proud he was. The power abusers hold over you is deeply embedded in a sense of shame. Friends, family or employers are critical support networks to even up the power dynamic. Ellen Pao tells of the greatly mismatched resources between her and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byer.

The reactions of others will be varied and occasionally surprising. From the people who could confirm your story and stay silent to the ones who proactively, admiringly, contact you. In a contrast to many party colleagues, employers went out of their way to support me. Tell me they were proud and impressed. Still, if you work in this area and speak out against the powerful, it has repercussions. I used to provide advice, mainly to charities, on how to win campaigns aimed at governments and had co-founded a successful agency. I arrived at a pitch one day to find I was asked not about the work but for the inside scoop on the investigation. Rennard’s friends in the Lords stopped returning contact regarding clients on issues they really should have cared about. I left the business and took a new job. Speaking out is the dickhead detector you never asked for, or wanted.

Any decent system should offer protection to the less powerful player in this situation. But those crossing the threshold can’t expect that yet. An organisation is interested in protecting itself. A perpetrator wants to give up none of their power, as Weinstein did after groping Ambra Battilana Gutierrez. Never underestimate the potential for an organization to sit on the fence when it could take a difficult decision either. Those in power, especially men, will change this when then join victims in saying it is unacceptable and do not leave them to bear the brunt of the consequences.

In 2016 I moved to California. Packing up, I found that note I’d squirrelled away. I thought of the tears, the fear, the shaking, the sense of failure I had experienced. I’d been found credible, yet nothing was done. This time. I also felt pride. When it comes to dealing with arseholes, you must be able to live with yourself.  When enough of us speak out. The next generation will get it better, but the journey will not be easy. There is a long way to go.  

Alison Goldsworthy recently graduated as a Sloan Fellow from Stanford University. For fifteen years she was an active Liberal Democrat and from 2011 – 2014 she was the Deputy Chair of the party’s ruling body.