The exposure of Harvey Weinstein may well be looked back on as a watershed moment. Sexual harassment has long been illegal in the work place, but only now is it becoming unacceptable. Women put up with it as part of working life and men either colluded by ignoring it or in some instances saw it as okay. Thanks to the individual and collective action of women this is no longer the case.
This rapid social change made me recall an incident some fifteen years ago when I challenged what I saw as sexual harassment at work. Back then my action was probably regarded by observers as potential career suicide rather than the right thing to do. What happened illustrates how professional men and women tolerated or colluded with abusive behaviour when the person responsible was a powerful man, in this case the celebrity publicist Max Clifford, who recently died in prison. The fact that Clifford was inside for sexual assault is a reminder that sexual harassment can be the thin edge of a nasty wedge.
The occasion was a business meeting in Clifford’s smart offices in London’s New Bond Street. Back then I worked for a financial public relations agency. We had been asked to assist with communications for a City deal being done by a wealthy British ex-pat who had engaged Clifford to manage media interest in his circle of celebrity friends. Clifford had clearly decided that here was a chance to extend his remit from celebrity work to corporate communications.
A female colleague and I went to Clifford’s offices for the first meeting of the project team. Clifford showed us around and made much of his wall of framed front page splashes from UK tabloids: “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster”, “Mellor Made Love in Chelsea Strip”, etc. From the outset I found him creepy. My unease grew when, with half a dozen consultants round the table, Clifford started to talk about the growth of lap dancing premises in London’s West End. What Clifford said remains a standard apology for lap dancing: what harmless fun it is and how many of the women were students funding PhDs.
The other men in the room joined in with seeming approval. My colleague, the only woman in the room, smiled slightly nervously. She was young, attractive and probably equivalent in age to the post-graduate pole dancers Clifford was referencing. The conversation was overtly sexualised. Whether Clifford intended it or not, the comments demonstrated that, whatever her professional status, she was subject to male objectification. There was a hierarchy of power in the room. Clifford was putting himself at the top of the pile and my colleague, as a woman, at the bottom. In his view, I was probably not far above her.
I asked if we could change the topic. Clifford asked if I didn’t like the conversation. I responded that I thought it inappropriate in front of my colleague. “Anyone else object to the conversation?”, asked Clifford aggressively. The other men were silent and my colleague, now very embarrassed, said she wasn’t offended. Clifford smirked and asked sarcastically whether I was happy for us to proceed. Sensing that there was no point escalating this further, I agreed. The meeting was not particularly productive and Clifford did his best to ignore us for the rest of it. When we finally got out and into a taxi, I remarked to my colleague that I felt I needed a shower. She said it hadn’t really been necessary to say anything. She was used to that stuff. For a young woman trying to make a career in PR this was normal. I got the sense that she would have preferred me to shut up.
Of course it proved impossible to work with Clifford. In one telephone conversation I expressed my concern that Clifford’s advisory role was becoming part of the media story. Clifford responded angrily, “I am always the story!”, and slammed the phone down. In the end I confined our role to the official market announcements and let Clifford get on with representing the client and his company. The newly purchased business went bust a year later.
All this was some time ago, but it still has relevance. Perhaps the most shameful thing about the slew of allegations against Weinstein and the rest is that their male peers did nothing to protest the alleged behaviour. As psychologists Brad Johnson and David Smith wrote in the Harvard Business Review in early 2017, there is a big difference between being aware of diversity and avoiding harassment (“passive gender inclusion”) and demanding respect for women even if no woman is in the room (“active gender inclusion”)1. A recent survey in the USA of white male business leaders, cited by Johnson and Smith, revealed a significant gap between the way white men see themselves as promoting diversity and inclusion and the way women and minority group colleagues rate them: while 45% of white men said that white men in their company had a positive effect on diversity efforts, only 21% of women and minorities agreed.
The behaviour of many men who encounter sexism and harassment in the workplace is a demonstration of the so-called “bystander effect”, identified by social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley2 in the 1960s. Those who stand by when others are harassed or even assaulted are not necessarily morally indifferent or sociopathic. But when others stand by our tendency as human beings is to feel less personal responsibility to intervene. In the end it takes other men to consciously engage their peers, first demonstrating respect for women and then holding other men accountable for their actions.
I don’t see myself as an early adopter of zero tolerance to verbal sexual harassment in the workplace or as pioneer of active inclusion. Back in the day I hadn’t yet trained as psychotherapist and I was not yet fully aware of the power of patriarchy and the many ways in which it continues to oppress women. I have never been a fan of lap dancing clubs, but I doubt if I would have objected back then if no woman had been privy to the conversation. My challenge to Clifford was driven as much by a sense of propriety as it was by informed gender politics. Whatever my motivation, it was the right thing to do and I am glad that I stood up to a man who was an abusive bully. All men need to be conscious of their duty to demand respect for women. Through #MeToo women are finally doing it for themselves. It is to men’s shame that we haven’t always been right alongside them.
1. Johnson, W.B. and Smith D.G.: “Too Many Men Are Silent Bystanders to Sexual Harassment”, Harvard Business Review, 13 March, 2017. (https://hbr.org/2017/03/too-many-men-are-silent-bystanders-to-sexual-harassment).