When It Comes To Sexual Harassment At Work, Why Are Women Still Seen As The Problem, Not The Victim?

One year on from Me Too, sexual harassment at work is as bad as it ever was

Sexual harassment at work

by Vicky Spratt |
Updated on

It’s the one year anniversary of the #MeToo movement (well, it is if you’re ignoring years of work put in by Tarana Burke, but that’s another story). ‘This is it’ they said ‘the reckoning on sexism that we’ve been waiting for since forever. Down with patriarchy etc. etc.’Harvey Weinstein was swiftly served his just desserts and it felt like women everywhere were finally coming out and coming together with their own stories of exploitation.

What are you doing to mark this momentous occasion?

I was thinking about having a party but, to be honest, I’m too tired. Tired of thinking about sexism and gender imbalances. Tired of reading other women’s stories and looking on as nothing much changes. You see, #MeToo was never going to be a solution, it merely exposed the sheer scale of the problem.

And, if the latest figures released by the Young Women’s Trust (YWT) are anything to go by, there isn’t much to celebrate at all. In their new report – ‘it’s still a rich man’s world’ – the YWT have found that 32 per cent of young women don’t know how to report sexual harassment at work, while 24 per cent say that would be reluctant to report it anyway because they fear losing their job.

Alice (obviously not her real name), a 23 year-old accountant at a top 20 international firm from Bath is one of them. Uncannily, almost a year ago she was sexually harassed by a male colleague. ‘We were in the pub having drinks with your team’ she explains ‘and suddenly he just reach up inside my skirt and grabbed me. We were surrounded by (mostly male) co-workers…they all saw and did nothing’.

Alice quickly decided to leave. But, she says, her colleague wasn’t finished. ‘He followed me all the way home’ she says ‘he wouldn’t go away. Luckily, at the time, I was living in a block of flats with a concierge and he let me in and told him to get lost’. The incident occurred on a Friday and Alice says she couldn’t face leaving her flat all weekend. ‘I remembered it all so vividly’ she explains ‘I think I was in shock…I had some non-work friends over and they immediately knew it was assault’.

Today, Alice is still in her job. She no longer feels she can socialise with her colleagues and the guy who assaulted her has frozen her out of office conversations. She has since found out that the he has done the same thing to ‘at least two, possibly three other girls’. She tells me that she thought about reporting him but, when she spoke to ‘someone more senior’ and asked for their advice they told her not to. ‘They said I should keep quiet because speaking out would be detrimental to my career progression’, she explains but points out that she’s not sure saying nothing has exactly been great for her career either. ‘Deep down’ she says ‘I know the people who saw think it was my fault’.

The #MeToo movement has at once provided Alice with solace, ‘you can read about other women’s experiences easily’ but, at the same time, she says the whole thing saddens her.

‘#Metoo kind of pains me’ Alice explains ‘a guy I know made fun of it when it was on the TV and, to be honest, it makes me feel sick…we’re trying to do this thing, everyone’s saying ‘look how great it is’ but some people are just laughing at us. At the end of the day power is money and where there’s money people will get away with it - that’s my experience anyway.’

Sadly, Alice’s story is far from unique in fact, it’s ubiquitous. Niamh (also not her name) works in media. She sustained a campaign of sexual harassment from a male colleague which many of her co-workers dismissed as ‘banter’. At the time, Niamh explains that she was freelance so she didn’t feel she could report what was happening ‘in case she could no longer get work at the company’. The colleague in question would ‘ask her if she liked anal sex’ and make comments that made her feel awkward all the time. ‘Once’ she says ‘we were away filming something and, in front of the whole team he kept asking me if I needed the toilet’.

Niamh feels like what happened to her fell into a grey area. ‘I wasn’t physically harassed’ she says ‘but I do feel there was a campaign of denigration against me. I was made to feel so uncomfortable that I just didn’t feel I could stay in the job’.

What’s most shocking about these stories is that they aren’t really shocking at all. One year on from #MeToo sexual harassment at work remains rife and young women are particularly badly affected. In a recent study conducted by the TUC in partnership with The Everyday Sexism Project, it was found that more than half (52%) of women, and nearly two-thirds (63%) of women aged 18-24 years old, feel they have experienced sexual harassment at work.

Far from redressing power imbalances in our society #MeToo has merely exposed them. The patriarchy was not toppled in 2017. When it comes to sexual harassment at work there has been no great realignment in offices around the country, there’s still an attitude that ‘boys will be boys’ and those young women who find themselves on the sharp end of those boys’ behaviour are made to feel expendable.

Women share their stories, they speak of their trauma and tell of how they worry that reporting sexual harassment will affect their career. Meanwhile, it seems that some perpetrators think everything is business as usual because they know that, when all is said and done, they’ll be able to shout 'banter' and get away with it

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