#MeToo- how can we fight silence as a ‘condition of employment’?

By Katerina Rudiger, Chief Community Officer, Community Investment, CIPD

“(I feel) true disgust at the director who assaulted me when I was 16 years old and anger at the agents and producer who made me feel silence was a condition of my employment” - Reese Witherspoon is the latest actress speaking out about her experiences of sexual assault at a Hollywood event last week. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen what seems an avalanche of statements, some with harrowing detail others talking more generally about the constant sexual harassment women experience, often from a shockingly early age.

As more and more women come forward it becomes harder to ignore the truth: this isn’t just an issue in ‘glamorous’ film and fashion industries in Hollywood, LA, Paris or Milan. As a woman, you don’t need to audition for the latest Bond movie, Victoria’s Secret Fashion show or girl band to experience sexual harassment in the workplace. Whether we are working as MPs, waitresses, researchers, managers, lawyers most of us have experienced it. Maybe not in the horrendous way retold by some of the thousands of victims through #MeToo, but in a variety of guises ranging from unsolicited attention, pestering and unwanted physical contact. But this is our ‘normal’ or as one Twitter user commented on her own #MeToo status: “It’s funny, I just figure it goes without saying”.

That’s an important point, as most of us don’t say anything. We think this is just the way things are, because that’s how they have been for as long as we can remember. We don’t want to be ‘difficult’, we are ashamed and blame ourselves and we get told that ‘it wasn’t that bad’ and that we ‘need to get over it’. Most women will have had their Reese Witherspoon moment of having to keep ‘silence’ at work, even if it wasn’t as explicit.

Mine was when I worked as a young trainee at the European Commission. Back then I wanted a career in European policy-making and I was ecstatic to have landed a highly desired 5 month position as a ‘stagiaire’ in the Department for International Trade in Brussels. But my excitement was quickly dimmed as the civil servant with whom I shared an office spent his and my working hours sharing intimate details of his personal life, commenting on my body, and my love life. When I finally plucked up the courage to ask to move office, I was told I could take the formal route and ‘make a fuss’ in which case this would be on ‘my record’. Or I could simply say that I wanted to sit with other trainees. You can guess which option I took. That day I learned the lesson that it wasn’t in my interest to speak up – a lesson that I’ve had the opportunity to apply way too many times since then. 

When sexual harassment is mixed with abuse of power the choice you have is very limited. This is especially the case for young women starting out in their career, when standing up for yourself just doesn’t seem an option. Abuse of power isn’t only a big movie mogul threatening to leave you out of his next block buster. It can be as small as someone making sure you are not being invited to an important meeting, given a project or, as in my case, getting a reputation as - god forbid - being ‘difficult’ or having invited this ‘attention’. Which is when we are back to blaming ourselves.

I could spend a lot of time talking about the ways the society needs to change to tackle this issue. But I work for the professional body for HR and I believe that people professionals can and must make a difference. For me, the notion of being a “professional” comes with a responsibility to take a stand for the values of fairness and humanity, and to have zero tolerance on behaviours and cultures that make us accept ‘silence as a condition of employment’. Ultimately, we need to all ask ourselves the question: ‘What sort of culture do we want to permit around here?’ If we help to set the tone from the top about what is acceptable then it can cascade through an organisation and help us stamp out this sort of behaviour.

One of the positive things has come out of the #MeToo debate is that it has allowed and encouraged women to speak up and call out bad behaviour as a first step. We need to capitalise this on this breakthrough and embed this in our working practices. This should also include the workplaces where there isn’t a strong HR representation but if HR professionals can lead the debate on this more generally, we can make a difference. I don’t have the answers on how we can change this – but I’d like to start the debate here and now about what we can and should do together.

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