Hey remember sexual harassment? Those were fun times, weren’t they?
The implication is that a combination of awareness, women’s growing economic power and legislation that began with the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act and has been updated repeatedly, has stamped out the problem.
Laura Bates, who set up the website Everyday Sexism earlier this year, isn’t so sure. Like those 1970s speak-outs, her site allows women to share their experiences, and over the course of six months 7,500 entries have poured in, “thousands of which pertain specifically to workplace harassment, workplace sexism and sadly, in many cases, workplace sexual assault and even rape”. “What I don’t know is whether the prevalence has diminished or not [since the 70s],” she says. “But I do know that an Equal Opportunities Commission report in 2000 said that 50% of women still experience sexual harassment in the workplace.”
Problem not so stamped out then.
So why is there this idea that workplaces are so much better now? Part of it, perhaps, is that sexual harassment affects women at different times in their lives. Endean says it is a particular problem, for instance, for young female apprentices in male-dominated workplaces and, anecdotally, many of us are affected by the issue when we start work in our late teens and early 20s. It’s an issue of power. As individual women get older and more personally powerful, sexual harassment often has less effect on them, and so they believe it has been left behind in another era.
Paula Kirby please note. Not all women are treated the way Paula Kirby is treated, therefore what Paula Kirby knows from her own experience is of limited utility for understanding what women in general experience.
Not only is classic workplace sexual harassment still going on, says Bates, but technology has created new forms; in the space of six months, she has seen several thousand abusive emails, including rape threats and death threats. As those 1975 feminists knew, what’s important is to stop the silence around the issue. “I think there’s an idea that women have to put up and shut up,” says Bates. “They’re told they’re whining, being uptight, frigid, sometimes even blamed for causing it in the first place.”
Oh surely not! Surely that never happens.