(Caveat: In this piece I am focussing on male sexual harassment against women. Sexual harassment can occur between any sex. I am, here, concerned only with women’s experiences.)
Masculine control of our culture is like that woman-eating crocodile: some of us never experience its bite, others see a glimpse of its toothy grin, but it only need destroy one woman once in a while, in order for the fear of it to affect all women. And, because it lies under the water almost all the time, invisibly, it’s all too easy for men to say ‘crocodile? What crocodile? We’ve never seen one.’
We carry out hundreds of investigations a year, many of them into allegations of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. Too often, the policy, the organisation’s language, or its decision-makers, undermine the very robustness and integrity of the process. It’s complicated, of course, but here are six critical areas to address if you want your organisation to get close to a system of fairness and justice for women.
The invisible woman in the code of conduct
That code of conduct that says “all those who work here must treat others with dignity, courtesy and respect” sounds great. The trouble is that word ‘others’; too many men respond at a deep unconscious level to that word as mean ‘others like me’. So Barry treats Harry with dignity and respect – but not Sally; but Barry thinks he’s upholding the Code because after all, Sally is not an ‘other’. (She is of course being ‘othered’, but that is beyond the ken of Harry and Barry.) Spell it out: ‘the men and women who work here must be treated with dignity, courtesy and respect.’
Stop finessing your policies
Politicians and journalists, HR directors and CEOs, are talking increasingly about the need for a code of behaviour and enforcement system that is credible, effective and accessible. ‘Credible’ according to Google’ dictionary means “able to be believed; convincing, capable of persuading people that something will happen or be successful.” This is too close to marketing-speak, selling faith rather than facts. Replace credible with “reliable”, which has the far more aspirational and descriptive meaning of “consistently good in quality or performance; able to be trusted.” Then live up to your claim.
Set standards for investigating officers
What does it say about our culture that we have mandatory standards for financial investigations, but not for sexual harassment investigations? For example, the Parliamentary Standards Authority acts as an independent watchdog on MP’s expenses but there is no independent watchdog to investigate complaints about their behaviour.
The C-suite, Human Resources/people management and ER people may all say all the right things, but if the organisation does not act, and in unison to a consistent standard, then all that is happening is an exercise in PR. To meet the claim of ‘reliable’ ‘credible’ and ‘effective’ the UK needs to work to minimum quality practice standards. We are working with the ISO and British Standards Institute to develop a new standard for workplace investigations, but this standard will be a recommendation, not mandatory.
Do not use workplace mediation for cases of sexual harassment
Theresa May has proposed an independent mediation service for staff wanting to raise concerns about MPs’ behaviour. After almost 30 years as a mediator, I am one of its biggest fans: but if you’re going to consider mediation as part of your policy for sexual harassment allegations, then ensure your mediation model is that of victim-offender, not workplace, mediation. The needs of someone who has committed sexual harassment in the workplace are not equal to the needs of the person who has experienced that harassment, and the ‘level-playing field’ approach of workplace mediation is simply not the right model as it is a deeply unpleasant way of making both parties party to the event, of expecting the woman victim to be open to hearing from her harasser, and of negotiating with, or, worse, educating, someone who has damaged her. A man who has sexually harassed someone, should be expected to apologise, make restitution, change his way of thinking and behaving, not arrive at a win-win outcome with his victim.
Don’t blame women for their response
It is too easy to blame individual women for their role in the incident: ‘you should have walked away’; ‘why didn’t you ask for support; ‘But you did not make it clear to him that you were unhappy about his behaviour’.
A woman who is sexually harassed or assaulted does not have the free agency ascribed to her: she is responding from the accumulation of years of feedback on how to be around men, and what is appropriate behaviour for a woman – as well as from her own sense of self and assertiveness. In theory, women are able to say an emphatic ‘no’; in practice, too many women cannot do so. In many cases of sexual harassment which I have investigated, women, in order to avoid further abuse, assume a deferential posture as the harassment occurs, and mimics socially learned and acceptable female behaviours in order to try and contain and manage the harassment. Women know how to not upset violent or controlling men, and when threatened, whether physically or psychologically, these dominant cultural scripts and ideologies of gender kick in. This should not be taken as evidence that she did not ‘stand up’ to the harasser, or that she was ‘too passive’ in her response. The only person responsible for sexual harassment, is the harasser.