Not for the first time, the sexualisation of women at work rears its outdated head, this time in the very place where legislation against discrimination was passed. Sarah Evans looks at how the Angela Rayner scandal – and today’s revelations that a Tory MP watched pornography in the Commons – only serves to highlight the government’s inaction to implement policies to tackle sexual harassment at work.
Angela Rayner being accused of using her sexual wiles to distract a poor defenceless man to make up for her own inadequacies in class and education is a new low. According to an article in the Mail on Sunday, Tory MPs claimed that the shadow cabinet minister tries to put Boris Johnson “off his stride” at the despatch box by crossing and uncrossing her legs.
One MP said: “She knows she can’t compete with Boris’s Oxford Union debating training, but she has other skills which he lacks. She has admitted as much when enjoying drinks with us on the terrace.” A spokesman for Rayner described the allegation as “categorically untrue”.
If this debacle wasn’t so sad it would be laughable. But it is sad and should be very concerning to all of us – regardless of gender.
It doesn’t reflect particularly well on the character expectations of the prime minister and reinforces dangerous stereotypes of “boys will be boys”, unable to control their natural instincts, and on, and on it goes.
Sexual harassment at work
Sexualisation and objectification of women in work, in the media, walking down the street, basically as we live our lives, is in equal measures boring and infuriating to experience. It’s as banal as it is dangerous.
Do you remember six years ago when Nicola Thorp’s refusal to wear high heels at work resulted in her being sent home? The story hit the headlines. I did a full day of interviews at the BBC on the employment law position. And it ran and ran because it was a shockingly familiar tale of misogyny in the workplace that many women experienced, and apparently still do today.
The comments made anonymously about Rayner fit squarely into the definition of harassment: unwanted conduct (including of a sexual nature) relating to the protected characteristic (here, gender) which has the purpose or effect of either violating one’s dignity or creating a hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
Under the Equality Act this conduct in the workplace is unlawful, but there is a statutory defence of “reasonable steps” available – this is where an employer will not be liable for the sexual harassment perpetrated by one of its staff if it can show it took all reasonable steps to prevent that individual from doing that precise, or sort of, conduct. It’s a low bar.
Last summer the government published its long-awaited response to the 2019 consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace, including that it was going to impose a new duty on employers to actively prevent such conduct. That followed the TUC’s 2016 publication of its research into sexual harassment in the workplace, with statistics showing the true and devastating prevalence of such conduct on the back of its #ThisIsNotWorking campaign. Then in 2017, the #MeToo tsunami began. Sexual harassment is being called out for what it is – and that it’s unacceptable and time to stop.
The government has pledged to introduce a duty for employers to prevent third-party harassment in the workplace. This will be implemented ‘when parliamentary time allows’. However, consultees have highlighted the complexity of introducing such protections without the need for an incident to have occurred.
Another of the key changes the government has pledged is extending the time limit for bringing a sexual harassment claim – currently three months from the act of harassment, plus any time spent in Acas early conciliation. However, there is yet to be any clarity as to what new time limit is to apply, or indeed how the positive duty to prevent harassment will be imposed.
We try to prepare our businesses to better tackle and prevent the awful reality of sexual harassment for employees – we consistently advise clients and HR teams to ensure that they have a well-thought-out and considered anti-harassment policy which is implemented and communicated to staff. That policy will include the appropriate procedures for reporting and investigating sexual harassment as well as protecting victims, and highlight the consequences of being found guilty of sexual harassment.
We advocate regular and bespoke training on preventing and managing sexual harassment issues which are catered to the business and should be rolled out to managers and supervisors. Currently however, businesses may have to take the lead in preparing for the promised changes by driving a culture that encapsulates the long awaited and necessary changes.
Now that the front benches in parliament are in the headlines for this sort of conduct, would it not perhaps be a good time to send a very clear, cultural message, on behalf of all of us, that we don’t want this nonsense in our jobs, our lives or when we’re walking down the street – and crack on with the implementation of overdue promises of change?