The misery of the post-#MeToo workplace

Myths about rampant sexual harassment have led to calls to police everyday interactions.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Feminism Politics UK

Feminism has become boringly predictable. Campaigns to close the gender pay-gap were always more likely to result in big pay rises for female television presenters and company directors than for women who work in care homes or supermarkets. #MeToo was only ever going to lead to a huge rise in the number of women claiming to have been sexually harassed at work. So news that there has been a 69 per cent increase in complaints of workplace sexual discrimination in the past year is hardly shocking.

This trade in feminist misery-stats is both dull and depressing. To ‘celebrate’ Pride month, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) tweeted out a survey it conducted in 2016 which found that more than half of women have been sexually harassed at work. It followed this with claims that 7 in 10 LGBT people have been victims of the same offence.

To take these figures at face value, you would have to believe that the workplace has been stuck in a Mad Men-era time warp for the past 60 years. Such credulity demands we ignore the impact of the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, equal-pay legislation and the revolution in women’s educational and employment opportunities.

Clearly, #MeToo has made everyone more sensitive to the issue of sexual harassment at work. When women are bombarded with the message that the workplace is full of predatory men, they come to interpret everything that happens to them through this lens. Younger women, in particular, are likely to define sexual harassment in extremely broad terms. A YouGov survey in the wake of the #MeToo movement found that 28 per cent of women aged 18 to 24 believe that winking is a form of sexual harassment.

The most common form of harassment noted in the TUC survey is jokes. The victims of this apparent harassment may not have been the subject of the joke or even the intended audience – they may have simply overheard an off-colour joke being shared. Perhaps just once, many years earlier. Yet, in the eyes of the TUC, this not only justifies the claim that sexual harassment has reached epidemic proportions — it also fuels a demand that something must be done.

Last week, a number of trade unions, charities and women’s rights groups launched a campaign, #ThisIsNotWorking, to end sexual harassment in the workplace. Their key demand is for new legislation to make employers responsible for protecting their staff from sexual harassment. Of course, there are already laws against more serious forms of sexual harassment regardless of where it occurs. And there are laws, such as the Equality Act 2010, that relate specifically to people’s rights at work. What’s more, many companies have their own strict codes of conduct that make sexual harassment a disciplinary offence. Now, under the banner of #ThisIsNotWorking, campaigners want the government to go further and make employers take preventative measures to outlaw sexual harassment. In other words, they want to stop sexual harassment before it even happens. Rather than rejecting this Orwellian thought-control outright, the government has instead promised a review of sexual-harassment legislation.

Let’s return to the colleagues sharing a rude joke. At present, the onus is on the trembling woman who just so happened to overhear the exchange to spill all to her line manager or union rep. Only then can the jokers be reprimanded. By this time, those behind the #ThisIsNotWorking initiative argue, the damage has already been done. Our poor victim cannot un-hear the sexist banter. Instead, rude jokes must be banned before they are ever uttered, hugs between colleagues must be forbidden before arms are spontaneously outstretched, and all contact between the sexes must be limited and policed on the off-chance someone says or does something inappropriate.

This latest campaign against sexual harassment speaks more to the dark fantasies of activists than it does to the reality of most workplaces. Many employment sectors continue to be informally segregated along gender lines. Although things are slowly changing, women are more likely to be found in care homes and men on building sites. Lots of people find work tedious with few opportunities for conversation between colleagues, let alone jokes, rude or otherwise. In the wake of #MeToo, human-resource departments dreamt up swathes of new rules to regulate the behaviour of their employees still further. Some companies have banned alcohol from work functions, others have banned hugging or cancelled Christmas parties or other social events.

Despite the fact that so much has already changed, new legislation designed to prevent sexual harassment before it occurs will have far-reaching consequences. It has already become common in schools and universities for male teachers to leave the office door open whenever they need to talk to a female student. The message this sends is that female students should be suspicious of male teachers and lecturers – not a good grounding for education. In the workplace, gaining promotion can often depend on networking or being mentored by the right person. If all interactions between colleagues and superiors are cast as potentially abusive, this won’t help anyone. And what if the workplace is a pub or a care home? If employers are to be held pre-emptively responsible for sexual harassment in these circumstances, they won’t just need to police the behaviour of their staff, but of every drunk looking to practice a corny chat-up line and every dementia-sufferer who behaves inappropriately.

Ultimately, unions are proposing that more power should be handed over to bosses to police the behaviour of their staff. This is a long way from their traditional remit of demanding more power for workers in the form of higher wages and better working conditions. Setting out rules for how men and women should interact turns the workplace into a school with employees seen as naughty children in need of constant supervision. We spend a great deal of our lives at work: it’s where many adults – men and women – meet as colleagues but may, through sharing jokes or gripes, forge lasting friendships and relationships.

If women want to be taken seriously at work they need to act like adults not like children running to teacher with tales of miscreant men. If a male colleague makes them feel uncomfortable, women need to show they are capable of standing up for themselves. A good place to start would be standing up to the interfering busybodies who want to police every workplace interaction on their behalf.

Joanna Williams is associate editor at spiked. Her new book, Women vs Feminism: Why We All Need Liberating from the Gender Wars, is out now.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Feminism Politics UK


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