Workplace Sexual Abuse: We Need To Be Talking Sooner To Stamp It Out

High profile people committing sexual assault in their workplaces dominates the news. What isn’t much is the dismaying and evident complicity of others.

A blind eye that enables appalling behaviour has been turned by many people in many places. Prominent abusers appear to have been hiding their behaviour in plain sight. Indifference? I hope not. Fear? Only some of the time.

It is disturbing how very public people, who are constantly observed, supported and written about, have somehow got away with dreadful behaviour. These are not people slinking around in the shadows.

It is true that abusers can often be skilled manipulators, quickly medicalising their behaviour when they are revealed; and excusing their predatory opportunism behind phrases such as ‘sexual addiction’ and ‘stress’ as reputation managers plot rehabilitation through the talk show circuit. And perhaps this time it will be different.

Yet it is clear that what we still lack is a culture of openness, freedom to talk about bad behaviour and to shame it before it develops, let alone goes on for years and years.

The carnivorous delight much of the media is enjoying from what seems a torrent of salacious tales involving the rich and famous, powerful and important, may be distasteful. But it can’t disguise a central truth: that there is a cultural issue around abuse that, still, needs to be resolved.

Whilst sexual assault is the extreme consequence of behaviour that begins with casual sexism, something we have been calling out for some time now, why has it taken until late 2017 for us to be having a full debate about it? After all, who hasn’t known about Hollywood’s ‘casting couch’? Westminster, too, has always seemed an unhealthy hothouse of political power and age imbalances, particularly since we entered the era of ‘special advisers’ and ‘internships’.

It is distressing in the extreme that it has taken glamorous names to drive a discussion about base usually male behaviour that every woman spends a large part of their life being acutely aware of, avoiding or having to assimilate.

The plain reality is that it is not just decadent and indulgent industries where abuse is rife and victims plentiful. Business generally is still riven with largely unreported examples of men (again, usually) exploiting their position in a hierarchy to extract sexual favours. We just don’t hear about it unless a case ends up in court.

We need to look further back and ask how have we got to such a position where gender is still a core determinant of opportunities and status? Women still spend their lives forced to adjust their ambitions, emotions and reactions around men. Rarely is it the other way around. Some believe that girls are more naturally adjusted and emotionally mature than boys in their early years. But then society kicks; and families, too, will often move everything to help males get on whilst taking the sense and support of females for granted. Perhaps that is why male entitlement starts: at around the age of eight.

It would certainly help if we had more equality in the workplace to resolve the power imbalances that enable abuse, and if we had more blind CV applications for jobs that were both age and gender neutral. We also need more women in the boardroom to break down laddish cultures, and with real power and authority.

We need to discuss and understand why some men dominate and humiliate and on in extreme cases sexually exploit. In my experience, women rarely feel those instincts.

But above all, we all need to show zero tolerance for sexual exploitation in public and corporate life and be prepared to speak up. Our politicians in particular have a responsibility to act with integrity, and if they can’t, to make way for the many equally talented people who do.