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Sir Brendan Barber: "We are all culpable" - tackling sexual harassment at work

Wednesday 02 May 2018

"Many of you, like me, will be determined to transform some of the toxic workplaces so widely reported in the media. But there is a real sense of looking around and thinking 'how did we get here?'"

Acas Chair Brendan Barber blog Sir Brendan Barber

Sir Brendan Barber is Acas' Chair, joining in January 2014. Previously Sir Brendan was the TUC General Secretary (2003 to 2012) and sat on the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service Council (1995 to 2004). Sir Brendan was knighted in the 2013 Birthday Honours for services to employment relations.

Speaking at a recent Acas event on the probable causes and possible responses to sexual harassment at work, one delegate from the world of theatre said that "we are all culpable" for where we find ourselves. Several other delegates spoke of a "sense of powerlessness" and a "conspiracy of silence" surrounding the kinds of behaviour and values that most of us are individually and collectively ashamed of.

I would like to briefly reflect on the issues raised at our briefing by asking three important questions about sexual harassment at work:

  • Where are we now?
  • How did we get here?
  • What happens next?

Where are we now?

The people who came to discuss this very emotive issue were from business, HR, unions, the third sector and the legal profession. Listening to all their comments, it occurred to me that there is a real tension between wanting all behaviours and values to be clearly right or wrong and having to acknowledge that there can be grey areas around what is acceptable depending on the context and environment.

For example, an individual might treat all colleagues with dignity and respect but do nothing to challenge a prevailing culture that seems to condone poor behaviour. This is part of the collective culpability raised by the delegate I mentioned. And there is a clear difference between someone who intends to harass a colleague and someone who unintentionally offends (although the latter is also unacceptable).

The boundary between what is acceptable and unacceptable is shifting, and this is a welcome sign that many workplaces are growing up and becoming more emotionally mature. One delegate remarked that the debate about how to close the gender pay gap has "opened the door on a much wider debate about gender politics".

Seemingly small things can help - for example, choosing gender neutral words in communicating with each other can counter gender stereotypes. But not all of our solutions work as well as we might think. Interesting research from the EHRC showed that some unconscious bias training can actually reinforce deep-seated prejudices.

How did we get here?

Many of you, like me, will be determined to transform some of the toxic workplaces so widely reported in the media. But there is a real sense of looking around and thinking 'how did we get here?' Delegates spoke of the need to challenge organisational hierarchies that support gender inequalities and shout out against what have become 'normalised behaviours'. Creating environments where disclosure can happen easily, is the first step towards tackling the prevailing mood of fear and futility.

Some analysts predict (see Kate Nowicki: The gender pay gap - can the tortoise become a hare? ) that it may take 50 years to close the gender pay gap. Surely attitudes can change a little quicker? For me the paradox is that some of the things we do to try and help can also end up inadvertently hindering. Take flexible working. Our own research 'pdf icon Flexible working for parents returning to work: Maintaining career development [396kb]' shows that if flexible work arrangements are seen as being mainly for women with child or caring responsibilities, this bolsters out-dated stereotypes and holds back pay equality. One of the solutions, of course, is to promote flexible working arrangements for men - but we know there is a lot of work to be done here as shared parental leave is not proving very popular.

It can be sobering to think back to how we felt and thought in the past. It is not enough to think that, as L.P. Hartley so eloquently put it, "the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there." It is our shared past and more than ever we need to reflect on attitudes we may have had and find champions to model new ones more suited to our vision of an inclusive, fair society.

What happens next?

Despite the size of the problem, there are lots of examples of good industry and sector responses to tackling poor behaviour. We heard about many of these at our event.

Jennifer Smith from the British Film Institute talked of her industries new principles for tackling bullying and harassment acting as the "underbelly for everything we do". And Ian Manborde, from Equity, pointed to the unique problems faced by those in atypical and insecure work and called out for people to disclose what has happened to them so that effective action can be taken. Partnership working between unions and employers can be a great facilitator of this action.  

On a more formal note, Craig Stephenson from the Welsh Assembly emphasised the importance of reviewing policies and ensuring they cover everyone. This is particularly important in workplaces with complicated employment arrangements where different sets of employers work to different authorities.

Overall the mood in the room was a mixture of exasperation and determination. Julie Dennis, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Acas, summed up the exasperation by asking: "Why am I having to make the same points about gender inequality and bias I was making twenty years ago?" She spoke of the historic 'division of labour' that has contributed to bias, but did offer hope for the future. Attitudes can be changed with training, she said, even if it takes time.  

Let's be clear, the task of eradicating sexual harassment is not just a job for the boys or for the girls. It's a job for everyone. We are not only all culpable, we are all part of the solution.

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