Over the last few weeks, yet another scandal has broken in British politics. This time calling out so-called antiquated behaviour that belittles, undermines and intimidates women in the workplace. Add to this, the Harvey Weinstein case building both here and in the US, and we can see a pattern emerging.
Truth is, this IS antiquated behaviour but it isn’t all being dragged up from years gone by – this is happening now. When Michael Fallon resigned he referenced things he had done 15 years ago that wouldn’t be acceptable now. I argue that they wouldn’t have been acceptable then. We shouldn’t be hiding behind a veil of ‘oh it happened all the time back then’ – 15 years ago was 2002 not 1902. For too long some men have treated women in the workplace as an amusing addition, to be celebrated outwardly as meaning they have reached equality and diversity targets but to be undermined and inappropriately commented upon at every opportunity. Was it a subconscious defence mechanism because they saw a women performing better than them? Was it because for so many generations women could only fulfil administration roles and secretaries were an object to be owned not employed? Was it because Hollywood glamourised the sexy secretary just as much as our mainstream media acted surprised every time a woman reached new heights in her career?
Whatever the excuse for the behaviour, it is clear that we are talking about it more now than ever before. We are listening to the claims of women with (slightly) more respect than before (excluding the tabloid press it seems) and still now, only when it looks like it might affect his long term career, might a man admit he behaved badly.
Why is it that we are seeing more stories hit our newspapers now? Is it because there are more women in the workplace? Is it because women are just out to cause trouble? Is it because women are using this as a way of eliminating their male competition? Of course not. It’s because women are finally feeling empowered to say ‘enough’. It’s because a generation of men, my millennial peers who are heading into their 30s, have been brought up to understand women are their equals and are calling it out. It’s because it just takes one strong person to stand up and say ‘not in my name’ to open the floodgates and give others the permission, and strength, to speak out.
I’m 28 and have been employed in a variety of jobs both part-time and full-time since I was 16. In my first job, on customer services at a supermarket, a supervisor was perpetually inappropriate and regularly ran his hand down my back finishing with a pat of my bottom. Since uni, I’ve worked with a boss who patted me on my head and said I’d ‘make such a good little wife one day’, another who routinely commented on the clothes I was wearing and compared my body shape to that of my colleague daily, came into contact with several men within Westminster’s circles who most certainly considered all women to be slightly amusing (particularly at the thought of them as serious thinkers), something to be lewdly commented upon and most useful to get the tea and I also had a member of the political elite make a pass at me over afternoon tea in the House of Lords.
I’ve never made a complaint. I’ve laughed it off or uncomfortably bid a hasty exit. I’m grateful that none of those incidents escalated into anything more sinister. Plenty of women have had far worse to deal with.
As I’ve got older, together with my friends and peers – we’ve shared many a tale of ‘#everydaysexism’ with a roll of the eyes.
So why didn’t we do something?
I have often felt like that was something to be expected, like my job might be at risk if I complained, that I didn’t want to ‘make a fuss’, that it could be worse, that I was mortified to be in that situation. You know it isn’t right. You know that isn’t the way you should be treated and still, you carry on.
Until someone says ‘this is not ok’ and seemingly the floodgates open. Don’t think that because lots of stories come out at once that this is a case of women jumping on the bandwagon. This is a case of women being empowered to say ‘I’m not comfortable with this behaviour and I want it to stop’. This is a case of men being told that women are not an object to be owned. That the notion of equality is not just a fashionable subject to be banded about but something that should be lived out in action as well as words.
If we are going to have a society that calls out bad behaviour then we also need a society who can protect the innocent too. Just because a claim is raised against a man does not mean it is valid or true. So much pain can be caused by demonisation in the press which can ruin careers and break up families. We have responsibility on both sides to listen and to allow appropriate processes for justice to take over. It’s all too easy to jump to a conclusion about a woman or a man based on whichever story is heard the loudest but men need to know that we won’t slip into a broad brushstroke of ‘guilty until proven innocent’ and women need to know that they will be heard when speaking out. We must build a culture where we seek to rid our workplaces of sexual assault, sexism and misogyny not create a new braying mob that is further damaging.
I read an article this week claiming that Millennials love something to complain about. We aren’t a generation of complainers – we are a principled generation that is empowered, and able, to stand up for what we believe to be right. And that is very different.
It is easier than ever before to ask someone’s opinion, share a story and find out information instantly. It is also easier than ever before to find someone with a shared experience. This means that my generation is fiercely protective, incredibly loyal and yes, opinionated. We’ve grown up on an equal footing (mostly!) with our male peers, our mothers worked, we have female role models from across the professions. We also know that our value is just as much as the man next to us that does the same job. We’re the generation that is empowered to call out sexual assault, the gender pay-gap and dodgy landlords. If we can also be the generation that protects our daughters from experiencing disgraceful behaviour from men in the workplace then yes, we’ll shout about it.