Most women who experience these incidents stay silent, and the cost of going public is often high. But as those who did share their stories explain, you don’t create change by covering things up
Imagine being 20 years old and stuck on a remote mountainside thousands of miles from home. Now imagine being the only woman working among dozens of men and being subjected to a sexually degrading, humiliating experience. Imagine making a complaint and being told it’s best just to drop it; that, otherwise, you might struggle to get a job elsewhere.
That was the choice Rebecca Crookshank faced as a young RAF officer stationed in the Falklands in 2001, if choice is the word. She had worried in advance about being posted to the Mount Alice remote radar base: “I remember hearing stories from other girls who had been, hearing about this ritualistic behaviour and feeling very vulnerable; feeling I didn’t want to go up there, making that known, being kind of accused of being a troublemaker – suck it up, you need to go up there.” Men mooned her on arrival; an initiation ceremony followed, involving being manhandled by several naked men. When she complained to a superior officer, the interview took place in her bedroom and she recalls being told she would get a good report if she kept quiet. “I think I said in the meeting: ‘I’m going to leave,’ and they said: ‘Well, your civilian life will be affected if you take this further.’ I was really terrified of all of it, of the power of this institution and the weight of the loyalty and heritage. My father was a serviceman, my grandfather too. What would they say?” So she simply stuck out the four-week posting and left the RAF the following autumn.
Why don’t more women report incidents of sexual harassment at the time? Why are those with stories to tell often reluctant to name names? These questions have been asked repeatedly in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and more recently in British politics. One obvious answer is: consider what happens when they do.
There are particular difficulties for women in the armed forces, who may have to continue not only working but living alongside men they have complained about in barracks, perhaps even relying on their support in dangerous situations. Leaving, meanwhile, means losing more than a job. “It’s your roof over your head, it’s your education, it’s your food,” says Crookshank. “Living in barracks, you’re so reliant – that’s why it’s so hard to transition into civilian life. You’re leaving a family, a home, a network and a chain of command that is all you know.”
But, even in civilian life, most women experiencing sexual harassment never report it, according to research last year from the TUC and the Everyday Sexism project. Of the minority who did, three-quarters said it made no difference and 16% felt they were treated worse as a result. Taking legal action remains relatively rare, perhaps unsurprisingly when payouts are generally small and the publicity makes it harder to find new jobs.
“The most profound damage is losing friends, having a global corporation calling you a liar, the impact in terms of anyone ever wanting to employ you again,” says Catherine Mayer, the co-founder of the Women’s Equality party who last year brought a claim for sex and age discrimination against her former employer, Time magazine, a claim it denies. “The sign you’re hanging round your neck, whether you talk about harassment or discrimination, says ‘troublemaker’.”
Avoid legal action, meanwhile, and there is still the court of public opinion. “One pushy lady!” shrieked the Daily Mail last week over a piece about the writer Kate Maltby that systematically – and she says inaccurately – shredded her reputation after she described how the deputy prime minister, Damian Green, had allegedly brushed her knee with his hand over drinks (he denies making any advances).
Yet there is undeniably a purpose to speaking out. A decade after leaving the RAF, while looking for work as an actor, Crookshank started writing a play based on her experiences. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was staged in 2015; she also posted cameraphone film she shot in the Falklands on YouTube and is still regularly contacted by servicewomen with similar experiences. “I only talk,” she says, “because I want other people to come forward with their stories. Because I know they’re there.”
There is a vicious circle here: if nobody talks, sexual harassment goes unchecked. Women who do talk, however, may pay a price for it. Silence begets injustice, but so, sometimes, does speaking up. Is there a way of breaking the circle?
Jean Porcelli was a science lab technician, working at a school in Glasgow, when she began to experience what she described as low-level nuisance from two male colleagues; messing with her papers or her chemicals. Before long, she said, things assumed a sexual connotation. They would read Page 3 of the Sun in front of her and, if she complained, say she was just jealous; they made suggestive jokes, brushed up against her. When she complained, she was told to get on with the job.
Unable to afford a lawyer, Porcelli had to represent herself at tribunal, but eventually, with the help of what was then the Equal Opportunities Commission, won a landmark victory; in 1986, hers was the first successful British case to show sexual harassment could be classed as a form of sex discrimination, although it would be 2005 before it was explicitly defined as an offence in law.
Yet, 31 years on, that law remains surprisingly difficult for victims to deploy without wrecking their careers, so much so that many choose to leave a company quietly rather than fight. “Clients just get to the stage where they say: ‘I just have to get on with my life.’ They’ve been through enough,” says Harriet Bowtell, an employment lawyer at the London-based firm Slater and Gordon. “Often, people don’t raise it because they feel it won’t be treated seriously or they won’t be believed. We get lots of female clients who are strong individuals, who say to me: ‘I feel ridiculous raising it because I should just be able to get over this.’ And I say: ‘It’s great if you can, but you shouldn’t feel as if you have to.’”
And while many women would rather resolve things privately within their companies, it isn’t always that simple.
In 2013, Alison Smith was one of four women to publicly accuse the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard of inappropriate touching and harassment. Smith, who met him at a time when she was being encouraged to stand as a parliamentary candidate, tried repeatedly to raise the alarm privately within the party to no avail before finally being persuaded to go public. By then she was teaching at the University of Oxford, having decided to put off standing for parliament for a while, and feeling increasingly responsible for her female students. “I was lecturing PPE students and that’s the pipeline into politics … There was a moment of clarity when I thought, ‘What are we sending these talented young women into?’” she says. “The idea of it happening to them filled me with horror. What people forget is the psychological cost of doing nothing in these cases.”
Things did not turn out as she hoped; an investigation launched by the party found there was credible evidence that the women’s personal space had been violated, but insufficient evidence on the criminal standard of proof that Rennard had acted in a sexually inappropriate way. He still takes the party whip as a peer and has always denied the allegations.
Shortly after, Smith moved to the Netherlands to be with her Dutch husband. Her new colleagues have mostly never heard of Rennard and she realises that gives her an anonymity denied to victims trying to continue careers in an industry where everyone is gossiping about them: “One of the reasons I’m reluctant to say, ‘It’s fine, it all worked out great’ is there’s a certain choice you are making. You know if you are speaking out about someone who is extremely powerful, they don’t have that power base from nothing. If you wanted to continue to work in an industry then, to be honest, I’m not sure I would have spoken out in those circumstances.”
Four years on, she is reconciled to her choices and hasn’t completely ruled out returning to politics in the future, despite some nervousness about re-entering the same circles as Rennard. “I’ve made my peace with it. I’ve even made my peace with the Liberal Democrats, although, obviously, we need to hold their feet to the fire in terms of continuing improvements. I feel much more at peace than I would if I’d known how big a problem it was and not spoken out.” For, just occasionally, that’s what makes the difference.
Sarah Lacy, founder of PandoDaily, dared to question the ‘bro’ culture at Uber.
It was when she found herself with an empty diary in November that Sarah Lacy realised she had become something of a professional pariah. “It was the first year in 20 years in Silicon Valley that I wasn’t invited to any Christmas parties,” she says, laughing, although that was hardly the worst of it; she recalls having to turn her tech news website, PandoDaily, subscription-only after advertisers pulled out, and there are still investors she hasn’t forgiven for getting cold feet.
Her crime, she thinks, was to run a series of pieces on sexist “bro” culture in tech generally and, particularly, at Uber. It wasn’t what the Valley wanted to hear about itself and those tensions finally became public three years ago, when it emerged that Uber executive Emil Michael talked at a business dinner about digging up dirt on his company’s critics, suggesting there was something specific to expose about Lacy’s personal life.
But she wasn’t the only one to experience unpleasant personal consequences for raising the issue. When the tech venture capitalist Ellen Pao brought and lost a sexual discrimination claim against her ex-employer, Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, it was open season for journalists and industry gossips on her career, marriage and personal choices. “There were a lot of women in the industry trashing her, and saying: ‘We all suffer this stuff but we don’t talk about it,’” recalls Lacy. The message for other women was clear: don’t risk it.
Now, two years later, Pao’s book about the case, Reset, is flying off shelves and she is regarded as “the Anita Hill of the industry”, says Lacey, referring to the lawyer who, in 1991, famously accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment and thus lodged the concept in US consciousness, although he denied the allegations and was confirmed in the post. Hollywood is making a movie about sexism in tech based on a viral blog by the former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, describing how badly the company handled her sexual harassment complaint. Uber’s Travis Kalanick resigned as CEO in June, days after Emil Michael also departed, following a string of controversies surrounding the company – including Fowler’s allegation – and an inquiry commissioned by the board into its broader culture.
Ellen Pao has written Reset, a book recording her sexual discrimination claim.
In July, prominent venture capitalists Justin Caldbeck and Dave McClure resigned after a series of female entrepreneurs described a culture in which women trying to raise finance were routinely propositioned and hassled. “Up until this summer, the idea that a man would get fired from a venture firm for propositioning women – ha!” says Lacey. “Everyone just accepted it was a part of business.” Yet suddenly, she says, “there have started to be consequences for men acting badly, which there just weren’t before”.
That has brought consequences for women. Lacy has just successfully raised finance for a new site for working mothers and says, wryly, that many women are finding investors suddenly keen to back them: “For sure, there are venture partnerships where people are terrified of what’s just happened. I talk about this every day with women in the Valley and it’s this thing of: ‘Maybe it’s guilt money, but let’s take the money.’”
What is interesting about this sea change is that there was no obvious reason for it. Women are reaching more senior positions in tech, but it remains male-dominated. The summer’s resignations preceded the Weinstein scandal, so can’t flow from it.
Lacy, however, has a theory: “It’s Trump, 100% Trump. If Hillary Clinton had been elected, none of this would have happened; it would have been four years of Lean In feminism: ‘Things aren’t perfect but here’s how we hack our systems to get on.’” The president’s ability to get elected despite boasting of grabbing women “by the pussy” shocked senior women into realising just how fragile their positions were, she says. And now they are allying with younger women who simply won’t tolerate what their elders did: “It’s a combination of younger women who just don’t think this is OK and older women thinking: ‘Oh dear Lord, we’ve made no progress.’”
What Britain may now be seeing is a similar alliance between older women, who once believed harassment was simply the price of the job, and millennials using the #metoo hashtag to reveal their experiences.
It hasn’t been painless, with several of those coming forward being heavily trolled on social media. “A lot of strangers opened up with ‘you’re lying’,” says writer Kate Leaver, whose tweets about how the then GQ political correspondent Rupert Myers forcibly kissed her outside a pub led to his dismissal. “I had: ‘You’re trying to promote your book,’ or ‘you shouldn’t be drinking alcohol with a stranger,’ even someone saying: ‘He can’t be held responsible for your decision to meet him.’ A lot of them were so ridiculous it was like water off a duck’s back, but get me in a vulnerable moment …”
But, as a freelancer, Leaver didn’t have a line manager or an HR department to approach; it was just her, sitting on her sofa at home, nervously composing tweets accusing Myers (who is also a barrister) of something over which, for all she knew, he might sue. Would she advise others to follow suit? “It really matters how strong the person feels in terms of dealing with the aftermath. I don’t want to scare people from disclosing, but I’d want someone to know that they were likely to feel frightened, shaken, exposed, vulnerable.” She worried, too, about damaging her career although, fortunately, the editors she writes for are mostly female and sympathetic – unsurprisingly, perhaps, when some may have similar unspoken stories.