The Westminster sexual harassment allegations didn’t arise in a vacuum

By Laura Jones

Women are in the news! To be clear, that means women are the subject of news reports, not reporting the news. Two months ago, it was revealed that just 25% of front-page stories in daily papers are written by women, and those are mostly about the Royals and TV.

But last Friday was Equal Pay Day, the day that women across the country begin working for free relative to their male peers due to the gender pay gap. You can’t move for reporting on the sexual harassment cases in Hollywood and Westminster. And before that? Revelations about the BBC gender pay gap, reports that British cinema’s gender imbalance is worse now than it was in 1913, of gender discrimination at Uber and sexism across Silicon Valley.

Perhaps it seems to some as though each week a fresh topic enrages the feminist lobby in a frenzied whack-a-mole of outrage. But the truth is that these are not discrete issues occurring in silos. They are symptoms of a shared underlying context, of cultures in which the majority of the power brokers are men, and in which women and their voices tend not to be accorded equal respect.

Vanishingly little of the media discussion surrounding the Westminster sexual harassment scandal has seemed prepared to consider this context. On Newsnight Evan Davis (salary £250-300k) and Emily Maitlis (salary less than £150k) led a panel of men in a discussion on whether it was OK to touch women on the arm anymore. Context-free discussions like this give ammunition to those who want to trivialise the serious nature of the allegations. It’s not their fault, they declare, they just missed the memo when arm touching got added to the statute book, or failed to see the great judicial ruling on winking. In any case, what’s a little knee touching between colleagues?

The all-male Newsnight panel

The all-male Newsnight panel

As it was left to guest Eliza Anyangwe to point out, what was missing from the Newsnight discussion was any analysis of power – the power that men all too often have over women to make or break a career, the extremely distressing situation a woman finds herself in when sex is brought into that equation, and her limited recourse to action, especially in places like Westminster and the BBC that still run on informal systems of patronage, and where most of the junior workforce are employed on precarious fixed-term contracts.

And without considering the Westminster scandal in its wider context it’s impossible to understand the full ramifications of such behaviour. Authority is not something that arises in a vacuum. There are a huge range of areas that society codes ‘male’, and so when we come across women in these areas it’s jarring, and leads us to make biased evaluations, underestimating their competence. Study after study shows that simply rotating the gender of the name attached to a scientific study, sports article or political tweet, significantly affects how credible we consider it.

This is the tilted pitch on which women work. But just as authority is relative, so too is confidence porous and susceptible to outside influence. We are not immune to turning biased evaluations inwards on ourselves in what is known as ‘stereotype threat’. When women take a mathematics test in a room that highlights the ‘geeky’ male stereotype in STEM subjects, they perform worse. If you remind Asian-American young women of their Asian identity before a maths test, they do better than if you highlight their female identity. In other words, if you keep telling women they don’t belong, sooner or later they’ll start to believe you.

So while of course it is possible to distinguish between more or less serious instances of sexual harassment, each one exists on a continuum of abusive behaviour that exploits power differentials. You don’t have to be Harvey Weinstein for these behaviours to have an effect. Indeed, all too often these behaviours occur in non-newsworthy offices, schools, hospitals and factories. Unlike in Hollywood, no investigative journalist is ever going to show up to shine a light on what is going on.

In answer to all this, some ask, Why don’t women just avoid men that treat them like this? Sir Roger Gale MP may be right that ‘nobody made’ female journalists go out for a drink with male politicians. But as every politician and journalist knows, cultivating good sources for leads and leaks is often done by wining and dining. A female journalist who never did that would find it harder to break news.

Indeed in most industries there would be a career price to be paid for avoiding all social settings or steering around every man who is rumoured to be a problem. Laurie Kilmartin, a professional comedian, has recently written powerfully about what all this means in her industry in the New York Times. The power in her piece lies in its clear explanation of the career price women pay if they rule themselves out of career-advancing opportunities in order to manoeuvre around problematic men.

While it may be easier to treat abuses of power as isolated incidents, focusing in on the details and rejecting them as PC nonsense or calling for a scalp or two, the truth is harder and more complex, but certainly worth saying and seeking to address. They are symptoms of systems of power dynamics, perceptions and cultures that fail to accord women the respect they deserve as colleagues not playthings, paying them equally for their work, recognising and respecting their leadership and ensuring they are given opportunities to hold positions of power and influence. Until we tackle these deeper-rooted issues, we better get used to women being in the news more.


Laura Jones is a Research Assistant at the Policy Institute.

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