The Cost of Speaking Out

The press (at least in the UK) has been full of the ‘Lord Rennard’ story this week. A man, hugely influential in building up the success of the LibDems but against whom four women (party activists) have spoken out, saying he had harassed them. This is not the place to dwell on the rights and wrongs of this, but it seems appropriate to consider the costs of speaking out. If the costs are high, will women do it? This is an episode that will also be reminiscent of the recent stories surrounding Bora Zivkovic (see here for just one write-up if you missed last autumn’s unfolding storyline). Bora was a man with a reputation for being hugely supportive of women yet who could still behave in ways that made young women around him hugely uncomfortable.  It matters not whether this was a power thing, a sexual thing, or just naivety on his part for what I want to say here.

I believe the view enshrined in my own university’s cumbersomely entitled ‘Dignity at Work‘ policy is correct (this covers far more than gender issues). Put simply, if it feels wrong to the recipient it is wrong, although it is expressed more formally in our policy:

Within the University’s definitions, behaviour is defined as inappropriate if it is:

  • Unwanted by the recipient.
  • Perceived by the recipient as violating his or her dignity and/or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
  • Having regard to all the circumstances, including the recipient’s perception, the behaviour could reasonably be considered as having that effect.

It is not enough to say ‘I didn’t mean to offend’ – it only matters that offence is caused. It most certainly is not enough to say something along the lines of ‘”I’m sure .. least half of the members of the House of Lords have pinched a woman’s bottom … at some time in their lives”, a quote attributed to Lord Greaves.That other people have acted inappropriately and got away with it does not make anyone else’s behaviour any better.  That is as true here as when it comes to being caught speeding by the police.

The trouble is that the cost of speaking out, only to be met with a negative response, can become fantastically high, particularly if you find yourself doing it on your own. (As in  Bora’s case, though, when one woman does dare to stick her head above the parapet she may well find she is not alone.) Indeed, speaking out can lead women to some very dark places, as many women have had the bravery to describe on blogs and in the media. It is only relatively recently I have had the misfortune to be caught up in some very pale imitation of these situations, but the way I was left feeling brought home to me just how appalling the experience can be. The circumstances are immaterial and I am deliberately going to do all I can to obscure them. This is not a witch hunt against anyone. I simply want to remind people reading this of some consequences of their actions (or inaction).

So, here goes with my own disclosure. Some years ago a senior male colleague behaved – in a public situation – in ways I found incomprehensible, demeaning to me as a senior professional and totally distasteful. What he did was, by comparison with many tales, insignificant but it was still most unpleasant. There was no point reporting it, or so I thought, not least because others were present and would have noted it. But some time later a situation arose in which it became clear to me that, as Gender Equality Champion, it was my responsibility to speak out about the individual concerned – again very publicly – just in case the person in question had actually been behaving inappropriately with much more vulnerable people, over whom he might have exercised power in some sense.  I had no evidence he had done so, but it seemed to me imperative that the question was asked given my own experience.

Everyone was very nice to me. In some senses. I wasn’t met with disbelief. I’m sure my ‘evidence’ was accepted as that was the way it was. But, then the qualifiers crept in. I was told ‘oh yes, he behaved like that with many female colleagues, that’ s just how he was, but he was immensely supportive of women‘ (this from a woman) – and evidence to back up that last phrase was provided. I was also told that we should not judge him by current standards for behaviour from the past, that ‘it’s always gone on‘ as justification for ignoring it now. I was told we shouldn’t adopt a witch hunt mentality and nor should we single him out when the behaviour of others in question couldn’t/wouldn’t receive similar scrutiny, because that wasn’t treating him fairly. I cannot accept these positions. Still, progress was made in that it was agreed that some search would be made to see if there was any prior hard evidence of wrong doings against junior colleagues. Maybe that was the best outcome I could have hoped for.

Nevertheless I came away feeling sullied by the debate and deeply depressed. It was clear that some of my audience would have much preferred it had I kept silent or backed down so it could have been swept firmly under the carpet (although a couple of them did write subsequently to support what I’d done as being ‘brave’). As a senior academic, whose word was not being doubted and whose reputation/future promotion prospects/ or anything else were not on the line so that I had nothing to lose, I still was left shaking, feeling ghastly and diminished. Imagine if I had been a young postdoc challenging a figure in authority. Well, I would simply have never spoken out would I? It would be sheer folly, far too risky. So I believe those seeking evidence of such wrongdoings will simply never find them: it seems to me it would be inconceivable that any young female researcher or student would have dared to speak out even if they had had reason to do so.

I would say all those colleagues of his who knew this went on, who accepted his so-called ‘flirtatiousness’ as okay within a professional setting and with professional colleagues (I don’t care what he does in his private life), implicitly allowed his behaviour to go unchecked probably for many years. Maybe he was very supportive of women when it came to promotions, or advice, or letters of reference or whatever. But if he had been challenged by any one of them who needed his help, literally slapped or verbally stopped in his tracks, would that still have been the case? Was toleration simply conniving, particularly from those men and women who would never need his active support?  And yes I know that you can accuse me of conniving too, because I did nothing, but then I had no way of knowing he was a serial ‘offender’ and assumed it didn’t matter and that he had just had too much to drink. That was clearly naïve, but I had no reason at the time to think otherwise. That must also often be the case in any similar situation, but clearly some people did know that this was this particular person’s habitual way of behaving and still sat on their hands.

I am sometimes astonished by men I know, who demonstrably do good work in supporting women and their progression, and yet who still behave totally inappropriately. Very often it may come out as simply being deeply patronising, using phrases that amount to ‘you’re doing very well as a woman, so I’ll pat you on the  head but never quite take you seriously’. That is all too common. But what about the man who is an active supporter of women but rubs his hand up and down my back when I barely know him? What could have been going through his mind? Why do people do this? Am I meant to be flattered? And if they do it to me at my age I am quite sure they are likely to do it to those much lower down the ladder who are more vulnerable. Do they not make the connection between how they behave to individuals and how they view women as a class?

The bottom line is for men thinking about their behaviour, if you wouldn’t do it to a man, you shouldn’t do it to a woman in a professional setting. And even if you would do it to a man (perhaps simply pat them on the arm), you might consider how it comes across to a woman if your relationship is meant to be professional , particularly if there’s an unequal power dynamic between the two of you. Remember that ‘I didn’t mean to cause offence‘ is not an adequate defence.  Women are not fragile creatures with fantastic imaginations making up occurrences of inappropriate behaviour to trip you up. They are serious professionals who expect to be treated as such. If I, as a senior woman with no reason to fear tangible consequences from speaking out, am still left horrified and internally diminished by the cost of doing so, our society has a long way to go in enabling everyone to feel secure in the workplace and free of anxiety about what their colleagues will do next. No witch hunts are necessary if everyone plays by the rules.  And if they don’t, women are going to have to go on finding the courage to speak out despite the cost in both emotional and professional terms and trust there are sufficient colleagues to lend them all the support they will need after they’ve done so.

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10 Responses to The Cost of Speaking Out

  1. ilovechocagar says:

    With due reference to your “no comment” post, I am commenting here (as well as on Twitter).
    In my experience (healthcare and academia), it is the metaphorical patting on the head which is both most pervasive and more difficult to challenge than outright harassment. Constant belittling is tiresome and confidence-sapping, but taking it on is at least as tiring.
    I find it easier to challenge bad behaviour directed at others than at myself. Am also conscious that, while this is framed as a gender issue most of he time, it is really important to remember that anyone can be a victim of this sort of behaviour (and it may become more of an issue in female-dominated workplaces; a long way off in academia, but already becoming a reality in the lower echelons of healthcare).

  2. Anonymous says:

    This post really touched a nerve.

    I am a senior professional woman in a large organisation, and have had to complain twice to the directors of my organisation about gender issues including sexual harassment. Once involved wolf-whistling, pornographic suggestions, and general intimidation by contract workmen on site. I knew if this was happening to me then it was definitely happening to others. My organisation acted swiftly to remove the problem. Women shouldn’t have to deal with these sorts of things at work (or anywhere), but I am glad that I spoke out because the problem was swiftly resolved for me and for my women co-workers. The second time I had to speak out was less successful, because this time it was about a high-level insider who I felt was treating me differently because of my gender, and there were also remarks and actions about me and other women that I felt were inappropriate. I got all of the usual reassurance at the time, but I feel in this instance that my actions have done nothing to improve the situation, and have been quite costly for me in terms of my potential to advance any further in the organisation. I regret taking the action that I did.

    I am writing this post under cover of anonymity, because we all know that the last thing that anyone wants in their organisation is a “trouble maker”. I’ve talked to many senior professional women, and most have had at one time or another similar experiences. Some of the experiences of male colleagues’ behaviour are so blatant as to make you say “for goodness sakes, why don’t you sue?”, and the response is always “because I want to work in this industry”. Other times, it is just that casual “leg touching through clothes” or a bit of “bottom pinching” at the company Christmas party that women seemingly have to endure as part of the price of being in the working world. Every senior professional woman has had to negotiate a Lord Rennard situation, whether it be at work, at a professional meeting, at a trade fair, at a social engagement. It adds so much to the challenges that women already have to face to get on at work; so many of us go through it, and yet it can be so costly to talk about in the open.

    Certainly, this seems like another area where we really need good (women) leaders at the tops of organisations, making it clear that “that’s just how he is” isn’t an acceptable excuse, and making it clear that when women raise these issues they aren’t being “shrill”. They just want to get on with their jobs.

  3. Anonymous says:

    It’s hard to speak out. A female colleague of mine (we are 4th year PhD students) disclosed that she was requesting from a course organiser not to be assigned as a tutor in a session with a senior (male) member of staff, because of his inappropriate behaviour towards her in the past. I encouraged her to speak up, and she said that she will, but only post-viva, because he will be her internal examiner, and it’s not worth the hassle.

    Her response to the situation is totally understandable, but it’s not fair that she is in that situation in the first place.

  4. As I mentioned on Twitter, it’s so sad that women can’t even comment here without fearing repercussion. I agree with the above poster who said that nothing will change until there are enough women at the top to inspire a cultural shift. Given that in many disciplines there is still a stark drop-off of female participation at the higher echelons, we might have to wait some time. In the meantime, it might help if redressing these sorts of attitudes were somehow quantifiable and then built into Athena Swan requirements. Perhaps an anonymous survey of all staff in institutes or divisions under contention for the AS award, to be included in the decision-making stats? If enough women say they’re being patted on the head or pinched on the bottom, no award this time!

  5. Plan ahead says:

    By all means speak up, but plan carefully. This advice applies to both genders and regardless of relative power imbalances.

    – Try to have witnesses
    – Gather as much evidence of a pattern of conduct, as opposed to one bad moment, as you can
    – Make sure you bring your complaint to someone who is likely to be on your side, you can for example describe the situation in an email to your unsympathetic chairperson but cc the woman friendly dean of research
    – Wait for the right moment, when all your ducks are lined up

    Let me give two real life examples, suitably disguised to protect the guilty:

    -Certain department was looking to hire a research chair from another institution. One of the female faculty members had had unpleasant exchanges with the researcher in question. She quietly approached other well respected female professors at other institutions who had interacted with the person in question. Four of them responded with similar stories. The hiring committee unanimously dropped the candidate after that.

    -A teaching assistant was abysmally under-performing. The professor approached fellow colleagues who have had the TA as an assistant in the recent past and asked “have you had issues recently with any of your TAs”. Two other professors replied with the same name as the under-performing TA. A letter detailing the complaints by each of the three professors was then sent to the grad officer and the student was barred from holding any further TAs.

    Remember, just because right and reason is on your side it doesn’t mean that your complain will be successful. Keep due process in mind, since your complain will likely be handled by internal processes which always have potential judicial considerations in mind.

  6. Yes, as Plan Ahead says, finding allies and taking careful steps is wise when it is possible. But of course it often isn’t for whatever reason. And, blatantly inappropriate behaviour in front of others can be called out at the time simply because there will then be others to back up the speaker. Undoubtedly it is better if it is someone other than the person affected can do it, as this recent post by Jenny Martin makes clear. She has chosen to speak out rather than let perpetrators get away with slimey behaviour. More of us – men and women – should do so. If it became much more normal then it would also be easier. More women at the top level should, as Jenny Rohn says, help but the more men do it about other men’s behaviour the better. This is not a woman’s problem, it is a problem for the workplace and a problem for everyone.

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  9. another woman says:

    It’s so true and it gets more complex since it depends on the interaction and trust between people. What is ok for some, is not ok for others – which should lead people to reflect about their professional behaviour. Just don’t do it to anyone then. I’ve also sat through long discussions/venting where some people talk about it that “their workplace is now very boring since people are overreacting so much since they’ve always been able to have a nice banter/joking environment but now it’s not possible anymore, blasted oversensitive [women]”

    I can see what they mean, from their point of view since they have obviously never thought about it as a threat from them…. haven’t really spoken out too much about it though, go figure. But I did tell my former advisor (after I was done) that he made me uncomfortable when asking me to join him and beers at his hotel room when were at a conference together. I guess it could’ve been ok (maybe?) but I couldn’t risk the perception of something going on, esp since my then work place had a few married advisors having extramarital affairs with female mentees… Not to mention that I didn’t know for sure he wasn’t going to be flirty/something happen and I didn’t want to risk that.

    Another option would be the old “find an ally who will take the brunt of the angriness” – aka the older man who will talk to the offending party and suggest them to change and offer help. The more I work though, the less I have faith in this approach and think that it might be best to just keep them out of the power positions. I wish I didn’t turn this cynical, and there is a graded scale of course, but I am less likely to vote for “everyone wants to adapt and change” nowadays and hope that we can get the behaviour nipped in the bud before it is a pattern

  10. Whistleblower says:

    The cost of speaking out is enormous. I have done so several times in my career and every time I have suffered a horrible toll. The wounds can never really heal because instead of having colleagues offering support they attack the whistleblower. It didn’t have to be this way, but unfortunately in each instance, the administrators where I work would rather beat up the person who dares speak up rather than taking the more difficult step of considering that something in the institution might be broken and requires efforts to fix.

    So, even if you have all your ducks in a row, don’t be surprised if this isn’t enough. In the most recent incident where I spoke up, the offense was so egregious that laws were broken, yet the perpetrators were not even told that they did something wrong. Cover up and attack the person who dares to speak up. This has been my life-long experience. I hope things change but it is very difficult to speak up when it only gets you bludgeoned – especially if past history teaches you this.

    I’m happy to see that others have had a more positive experience.