Despite #MeToo, tackling sexual harassment of women in parliament remains a challenge
Christina Julios discusses the extent of the problem of sexual harassment in the UK Parliament. She writes that, in line with the Hollywood film industry and countless institutions around the world, sexual misconduct in Parliament was to prove rampant and cross the political spectrum – from the so-called sexual pest file from the Conservative Party of 36 offending MPs, to the Labor Party and the Liberal Democrats.
In October 2017, two presentations awarded by The New York Times and the new yorker uncovered the biggest sex scandal to hit the Hollywood film industry in modern times. Their exposure of the systematic sexual harassment and abuse of women by an influential movie mogul Harvey Weinstein sent shockwaves through Tinseltown. It has also become a catalyst for the rise of the global market #Me too movement, as millions took to social media to share their personal experiences of sexual transgressions. The countless voices of #MeToo have laid bare the extent of institutionalized gender inequality in workplaces around the world, which disproportionately affects women and leaves them vulnerable to abuse. From the entertainment world to business, broadcasting and politics, no area of social life has been immune to this practice. Unsurprisingly, the British Parliament was no exception.
The Palace of ‘sextminster‘
During the fall of 2017, the momentum generated by #MeToo saw many MPs from all political persuasions charged with sexual offenses against women. In a replay of the Weinstein debacle, the flood of sordid headlines about their alleged misdeeds has found Britain’s political establishment at the center of its biggest ‘sordid scandal‘ lately. The well-documented catalog of offenses included a so-called ‘dirty file‘ alleging misconduct by 36 Tory MPs, as well as numerous revelations by victims and media accounts of wrongdoing by MPs of all political persuasions.
Behind the walls of the now dubbed “Sextminster” Palace, elected officials appeared to have violated the rights and well-being of women by engaging in unsolicited acts such as groping, inappropriate touching, unwanted passes, throwing sexual chatter, making misogynistic comments, texting, using sexual connotations and pressuring women to engage in unwanted sexual behavior; with more serious allegations of sexual assault also coming to light. The long list of alleged perpetrators included high profile names from the Conservative government benches as well as Labor MPs. Third-party political parties and decentralized institutions fare no better.
the Gender power gap
At the time, the glaring contrast in the balance of power between the incriminated deputies and their alleged victims spoke volumes about the entrenchment status quo at Westminster. Typically, the deputies involved were middle-aged men in positions of authority, overwhelmingly working male-dominated parliament. With only 220 women deputies (34% of the total) and 223 women peers (28%), the legislature continues to grant a large presence to men which inevitably privileges them and disadvantages women. In this context, any MP accused of misconduct could reasonably expect to get away with his “misjudgment” or his “misinterpretation of the situation” by issuing a public apology, being duly reprimanded or temporarily suspended from his side. Only in the most serious or “embarrassing” cases would an MP resign. Sir Michael Fallon provides an example. The married father-of-two quit his job after historic allegations surfaced that he repeatedly touched the knee of radio host Julia Hartley-Brewer during a previous Tory conference.
By contrast, many of the MPs’ alleged victims were often young women working for them, hoping to be employed by them, or at the start of their careers. Regardless of their level of experience, female Westminster workers frequently held positions that were junior or far less powerful than the men accused of sexually harassing them. In seeking redress, these women found themselves with limited options, while facing some rather difficult choices. Like Dame Laura Cox’s Independent Review (2018) on Intimidation and harassment of House of Commons staff As illustrated, being on the wrong side of the gender power gap often prevents victims from reporting incidents.
Their plight is further compounded by factors such as fear of not being believed, fear of losing their jobs, fear of damaging their reputation, fear of jeopardizing their future careers, as well as lack of access to effective organizational and legal support mechanisms. . Those who dare to speak up and seek justice usually face an uphill struggle fraught with tougher choices. They can either engage in often lengthy internal complaints procedures, take their grievances to court or settle their disputes via non-disclosure agreementswhich effectively silences them.
So far, the evidence of positive results is not on their side. Like Fawcett Society (2018) Sex Discrimination Act Review points out that although women are systematically over-represented among the victims of sexual harassment at work, the vast majority of them do not file a complaint. To put this into a broader context, these long-established patterns in the workplace are reinforced by persistent conviction rates for sexual assault-related offenses in the general population. the England and Wales Crime Survey (2021), for example, shows that while nearly four times as many women are victims of sexual assault as men, less than one in six (16%) report them to the police.
In late 2017, as the sordid Westminster scandal unfolded, the political elite sought to salvage Parliament’s reputation and pledged to address its shortcomings. Consequently, the following months will see many politicians denouncing Westminster’s patriarchal ethos and pledging to address the plight of its long-suffering victims. As Prime Minister, Therese May well-led calls for a “new culture of respect”. Over time, such intentions would be followed by a host of evidence-based investigations, reports and public policy initiatives aimed at eradicating the problem, including: Dame Laura Cox’s Independent Review (2018) ; House of Commons Women’s and Equalities Committee (2018) Report on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace; Gemma White QC (2019) Intimidation and Harassment of Members’ Parliamentary Staff investigation; and Naomi Ellenbogen QC (2019) An independent inquiry into bullying and harassment in the House of Lords. Additionally, a Independent Complaints and Grievance System would be established, and its helpline contacted by 388 people in the past year alone. Progress has undoubtedly been made.
In examining the impact of #MeToo in the UK parliament, however, attention must be paid to the root causes of the problem of sexual harassment, namely a persistent gender power gap and the inherent patriarchal attitudes that support it. To this day, these unresolved issues underscore the dynamics of the Westminster workplace. The “#MeToo effect” can be credited with bringing unprecedented attention to gender disparities in the workplace, as well as the much-needed reform of organizational cultures and structures that perpetuate them. But, unless significant changes are made to the current status quo takes place, the fight against sexual harassment of women in the Houses of Parliament will remain a challenge.
Christina Julios is honorary associate and associate. Lecturer at the Open University. His latest book, SSexual harassment in the British Parliament: lessons from the #MeToo erawas published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2022. His previous titles include Female genital mutilation and social media (Routledge, 2019); Forced marriage and ‘honour’ killings in Britain (Ashgate, 2015); and Contemporary British identity (Ashgate, 2008).