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.