Beauty and the Bystander

The Harvey Weinstein disgrace and resulting #MeToo campaign has brought the whole subject of sexual harassment (and worse) at work firmly into the headlines. What is unequivocal is that this, as the majority of women unfortunately know, is not just a Hollywood problem.

In the UK, a report conducted jointly by the TUC and Everyday Sexism last year found that 52% of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment at work. That number rose to 63% for 16-24 year olds. Amongst all respondents, nearly a quarter had been touched without invitation, and a fifth had experienced a sexual advance. A fifth of those had been harassed by their boss or someone in authority. Four in five women do not report it. For those that do, the outcomes are poor; according to the TUC report, 80% found that nothing changed; 16% said that the situation worsened afterwards.

In my career I have been fortunate to work with many male bosses that I know would not tolerate anything that might possibly be considered inappropriate. To be clear, that is defined by the Equality act of 2010 as “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.” The problem often arises when it’s difficult to measure whether some comments are humiliating or offensive, or just a bit of “banter”. Unfortunately I have witnessed first-hand, and been told of many instances, when banter is certainly judged to be so by the person saying it, but not by those hearing it.

We would like to think that workplace culture has improved, but we can all only reflect on our own experiences and those of our friends, colleagues and loved ones. I had an instance early in my career when I turned down a subtle yet obvious proposition by my boss’ boss, and the consequence was a disparaging rant at my next appraisal about my lack of ambition and ability. And no pay rise.

I left the company.

I, like most of my friends and colleagues have more depressing stories; even those I know that have had the courage to report incidents have been asked if they’re sure they want to go through with the complaint (in one instance because the person accused was their best sales person!)

But there’s another “#metoo” to consider here, and that’s about not speaking up, and for that I am guilty. Whilst my motives for that may have seemed correct at the time, not making a fuss, not wanting to be branded a troublemaker, not wanting to affect my career, I now question whether it was the right decision. In an HBR article published in 2016, ‘Why we fail to report sexual harassment’, the authors conclude that not only do women fail to report harassment, but so do those that witness it – “the bystanders”.

The bystander effect means that we’re less likely to help a victim when others are also present. It creates a diffusion of responsibility, we expect others to intervene, and social responsibility, we’re waiting for others to judge whether what we have witnessed is appropriate. I know that there have been times when I should have spoken up on behalf of others when I was a bystander, but I didn’t (to be clear, I had no issue on speaking up on behalf of others if it had been about fairness, or them voicing their opinion).

So the fear of retaliation mentioned in the HBR article, and in some cases at the request of the person who had been sexually harassed, I did nothing. Having worked in media and advertising for most of my career, I know that sector is more evolved than some, but there is definitely more work to do. Some first-hand stories that I have heard from young women this year have been shocking. This kind of behavior, as well as being abhorrent, can also have an effect on productivity, job satisfaction and people’s physical and psychological health.

So there are some questions here that companies need to be asking, however uncomfortable that might be, and however evolved and inclusive they perceive their culture to be.

● Is there a culture in which potentially offensive banter is tolerated?
● Do people, particularly women, feel safe and supported to report behaviour they do not feel comfortable with?
● Is there a bystander attitude?
● Is there a male culture in which in order to be accepted into the high-status group, people feel they need to play along?
● Is there a zero-tolerance attitude to sexual harassment? If so, is that clearly and consistently communicated?

In previous blogs, we’ve called on women to champion and support each other, rather than criticise and deride, to #bemorebird. It’s important to note that women too in positions of power can treat both men and women inappropriately and unfairly. Now that the genie is well and truly out of the bottle in terms of the scale of sexual harassment – both in the workplace and everyday life – we challenge the men who we know are equally horrified to call out bad behaviour.

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but banter is most certainly not. #bemorebird