THE BLOG

It's Time To Reign In The 'Man With Long Arm' But We Also Need To Empower Women

12/11/2017 16:59 GMT | Updated 12/11/2017 17:00 GMT
BERTRAND GUAY via Getty Images

It's a sad fact of life that not everyone behaves well all of the time. We knew this long before Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey were accused of sexual harassment and assault. And we knew about sexual harassment in the workplace long before recent Westminster revelations.

The key thing for me is power. This is what links the current investigations being undertaken in Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff on the one hand with the Hollywood scandal on the other. It's about power in the workplace. Sexual harassment is wrong anywhere and has no place in our society, but the difference in the workplace is that your livelihood, perhaps even your future, is at stake.

We need to remember that men are more than twice as likely as women to be in a senior management role; we need to remember that three quarters of pregnant women suffer discriminatory treatment in the workplace, and one in 9 lose their jobs as a result of that pregnancy; and we need to remember that the gender pay gap starts the day you graduate.

This means that, too often, the power dynamic at work disadvantages women. So those suggestive texts, that inappropriate language, that questing hand, will come not from some stranger, nor from your mate but from your boss.

Where women encounter sexual persecution in their place of work, we have to take it seriously or we may as well give up on gender equality and apologise to our daughters and admit it was all just a bit too difficult. Because there is a vicious cycle at work where the less we challenge barriers to women's careers, the more we will find them in vulnerable positions in the work place and the more we find them in junior positions, the more they will be held back by sexual harassment.

And also, to be honest, because it's the right thing to do. We need to address sexual harassment in the workplace because no woman should have to feel demeaned and humiliated by some bloke who hasn't learned that women aren't just sex objects but might be in the office to earn, to learn and to make a contribution as an equal.

It's a particular problem in politics, where women are still under-represented and employment and engagement systems do not appear fit for purpose. We need transparent, independent and robust HR processes and we need a culture where MPs are role models not sources of embarrassment. Parliament can and must do better. It should lead. It can start by taking a look at how people are employed by MPs.

The Commission has an important role here. We will seek to use all our powers, including legal enforcement where appropriate, and we are writing to businesses to tell them the steps they should be taking to protect and empower their female employees.

And because culture is set from an early age we will be making recommendations to government on how to best educate children of both genders to understand what respect and equality mean in everyday life, so that they grow up in a world where this stuff is history.

Now go back and read those paragraphs again, because nothing in what follows should take away from that.

People should learn to behave themselves. But sadly, we should remember that they don't always. And given that, we have to ask the difficult question, which is about differentiation.

As an extremely fortunate CEO of a national body I am not in a position of being held to ransom by some middle-aged man's testosterone-fuelled ego these days. It wasn't always thus. I remember, as a junior government lawyer, attending a reception with one of the Minister's guests draped all over me, like a cloak. What stung was a subsequent remark from a senior colleague, who asked "Who was that old geezer with his arm all over you?" I felt accused; I felt guilty; I felt embarrassed. Nevertheless, the arm wound around me (from a bloke old enough to be my dad and certainly old enough to know better) constituted foolishness rather than harassment and I am quite clear I know the difference, especially because I know women who have suffered far more serious intrusions on their person. Respect for them demands a differentiated response.

It strikes me that we need a cultural change. We need Man with Long Arms to know that his behaviour is unacceptable.

We need to end the gender pay gap and have a culture which empowers young women so that instead of feeling guilty and embarrassed, women have the confidence that they can put people's arms and hands back where they belong, in no uncertain terms, without the need for formal or public intervention but in the knowledge that they will not face retribution and their complaint will be taken seriously.

And we need to avoid the hysteria of trial by media, with all the risk that it entails of a lack of transparency and fair process. We need to remember that everyone is innocent until proved guilty. We need to have a proportionate and sustainable approach to wrongdoing, and learn the lessons America learned at the hands of Senator McCarthy - but save ourselves the price.

Just as it's true that people often behave poorly, humans are also capable of creative and intelligent thought processes which go to make a better world. What makes us special is our sense of judgement. We are facing potential backlashes here, both ways, and either would be a huge mistake. We desperately need a sense of judgement and respect and a cool hand on the tiller in the days to come. Please let's stay in the middle of the current and not wreck the boat on either shore.