Ending the silence on workplace sexism

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Chicago union activists fighting to protect hotel workers from sexual harassment

The autumn has been dominated by the sexual harassment claims against prominent figures. Sally Campbell looks for collective solutions to a problem often experienced individually.

Since October headlines have been dominated by revelations of sexual harassment and assault, first against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and then spreading to other producers, directors and stars.

The scandal then engulfed the UK parliament, where Tory minister Michael Fallon was forced to resign over sexual misconduct — and claimed his behaviour was “acceptable ten or 15 years ago”. Some 28 other Tory MPs and several Labour figures are being investigated over similar issues.

And of course this all takes place at a time when the president of the USA is a man who has bragged about “grabbing women by the pussy”.

The sheer numbers of women and some men coming forward with their experiences of sexual harassment and assault against prominent figures has — at least momentarily — lifted the veil that allows oppressive behaviour to go on, often with other people’s knowledge, largely unchallenged.

Many of the revelations about prominent figures in Hollywood, for example, happened years ago. When people ask why the victim didn’t report it at the time, the response is often that they did — they told someone, or someone knew, but nothing was done, or there was no mechanism through which to get a resolution. Often, even if there was a mechanism to report sexual misconduct, they didn’t use it because they feared it would make life harder for them in future.

Hollywood

The young women and men who experienced sexual harassment or assault were too often led to the conclusion that they should just accept it and carry on — it’s just “part of the job”, “Oh, that’s just Harvey, he’s like that”. And of course it is well-known that Hollywood, and the film industry more broadly, was built on bullying, competitive and brutally sexist practices — both behind and in front of the camera.

In September the British Film Institute released its Filmography of British Film, a study of 10,000 films made in Britain, which showed that in 2017 only 30 percent of actors cast in films were women; in 1913 the figure was 31 percent. The filmography also revealed that less than 1 percent of films made between 1913 and 2017 had a majority female crew — rising to 7 percent since 2000; only 4.5 percent of all films have been directed by a woman; and the most popular word in British film titles is “man”.

Female actors report their despair at constantly being offered small parts such as “prostitute”, “waitress” or “secretary”, while men will be offered “boss”, “detective” and “doctor”. In an industry so structured around reinforcing gender roles it is hardly surprising that a sexist atmosphere prevails.

But it’s not just the ideological role of show business — it’s the working practices, which have a lot in common with other industries where levels of sexual harassment tend to be high. Rebecca O’Brien, a producer at Sixteen Films, Ken Loach’s production company, has pointed out that film is a freelance industry with no overarching means of redress — or even a human resources department that might take responsibility for working conditions.

Kate Kinnimont of Women in Film and Television UK (WFTV), a membership organisation for women working in the industry, agrees that young workers in particular will be freelance and therefore more likely to feel isolated and vulnerable. The organisation has launched its own #MeToo campaign to collect members’ experiences of harassment. The testimonies will inform industry-wide guidelines compiled by WFTV, Directors UK, the BFI and Pact (industry trade association) to “professionalise the industry” — surely the least the employers can do.

In November the Labour MP Harriet Harman chaired a roundtable with WFTV, actors union Equity and union Unite in order to establish best-practice guidelines to combat sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace.

It is important to draw the focus away from the stars and onto the broader workforce. In the midst of the Weinstein revelations American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich tweeted, “Our current sex harassment discussion is woefully class-skewed. Too much about actresses and not enough about hotel housekeepers.” The case of Dominique Strauss Kahn immediately springs to mind — the former head of the International Monetary Fund was arrested in New York in May 2011 after being accused of a brutal assault by Nafissatou Diallo at a Manhattan hotel. Kahn claimed it was consensual. Criminal charges were later dropped by prosecutors, but Strauss-Kahn settled a civil action out of court in December 2012 (a Hollywood film about the case is in the pipeline — a “comedic dramatisation” called The Libertine).

But Ehrenreich’s point is that, every day, women who work as housekeepers, waitresses and domestic workers are incredibly vulnerable to harassment, often from managers, but also from co-workers and customers. A survey by the Chicago housekeepers’ union found that 60 percent had been sexually harassed. In an echo of the Weinstein cases, hotel housekeepers as a matter of course have to go into people’s hotel rooms alone. “They go up to somebody’s room and there’s no one else there, and some guy tries something or is there with no clothes on while they try to do their jobs. This is routine”, said Ehrenreich in an interview with Slate.com.

A survey by trade magazine The Bookseller found that over half of respondents (54 percent of women and 34 percent of men) had experienced sexual harassment at work, most concentrated among young, junior workers. Figures were particularly high for publicists — often women who have to travel around on their own with authors, attending alcohol fuelled events and staying in hotels.

Unifying

An obvious unifying factor in all these sectors is a freelance, individualised culture, with younger women workers in particular often working on their own, and a lack of industry-wide redress. And sexual harassment isn’t taking place in isolation — workers in these industries also report a general atmosphere of bullying and harassment.

This chimes with research carried out by the TUC in conjunction with the Everyday Sexism Project. The TUC report “Still just a bit of banter? Sexual harassment in the workplace in 2016” found that 75 percent of young people and over half of union members had experienced sexual harassment. Among those most likely to have faced harassment were women not on permanent contracts, especially agency workers and those on zero-hours contracts. Almost four fifths had not reported it. Of those that did only 13 percent were satisfied with the outcome. Very worryingly, just 1 percent reported it to a union rep — though the TUC points out that those most likely to be harassed are also some of those least likely to be in a union. This is significant. Collective organisation is a crucial step towards not just dealing effectively with harassment when it occurs, but changing the atmosphere in a workplace or industry — or a university classroom — so that it is much less likely to occur.

That means women and men working together to challenge bullying behaviour from bosses and those in positions of power. Change won’t simply come from above — there has to be a battle in workplaces to ensure that harassment is challenged and in the unions to ensure that it is taken up as a central campaign.

The Everyday Sexism Project and more recently the #MeToo campaign have highlighted how widespread sexual harassment is. This extends beyond the workplace or college to street harassment, abuse in relationships and in public spaces. For many women looking at the world today it seems irrefutable proof that we are living in a patriarchy — a society in which men use their privilege to lord over women at all levels of society, from the US president to the man next to you on the Tube taking up a little more space than necessary.

Most of the time women experience sexism as individuals, from individuals — usually men. But society isn’t simply a collection of individuals wielding power over each other. We live in a class society — capitalism — which functions by a minority class which owns and controls the means of producing wealth exploiting a majority working class which has no other way to survive than by selling its labour power for a wage. The key power relations in society flow from that central antagonism.

Gender roles

The gender roles which shape our lives and our expectations so fundamentally also flow from the needs of capitalism. The nuclear family performs an indispensable role for the system — it feeds, clothes and houses the current and future generations of workers, at a fraction of the cost of capitalism providing those services through waged labour (though of course many aspects of the caring role of the family are carried out in part by waged workers). And when I say “it” I mean mostly individual women, whose role as mothers and partners and daughters confers huge responsibilities.

It also determines how women are meant to be — caring, friendly, willing to please, as well as sexually desirable and fertile. And men are raised to be outgoing and confident, “rational” (as opposed to emotional), good providers, and so on.

These roles shape all of us, whether or not we actually live in a family setting or have children ourselves. And they remain in place despite the changing lives of women over the past few decades. Women make up half the workforce in Britain — but they are still seen as the primary carers and, crucially, our society is still geared towards them taking on that role, which makes it incredibly hard to live any other way, though lots of people try to.

This is the underlying material basis of women’s oppression, of which sexual harassment is a symptom.

An oppression so deeply rooted in the economic system will take a fundamental transformation to uproot. The first step is fighting the sexist and bullying culture that allows harassment to take place, whether through collective union organisation at work or through protests and collective education on a broader level. Students have organised against sexism on campus for many years, and most student unions will have decent policies on sexual harassment — even if they sometimes have to be pressured to enforce them. A more recent development has been education for students about consent — a vital subject that has been much contested.

People’s backward ideas can change — indeed if they couldn’t, we might as well give up on socialism now. History shows us that in social and political struggles people have been forced to confront their own ideas and behaviour and recognise the rights and dignity of groups they hadn’t considered equal before. The greater the struggle the more fundamentally ideas are challenged — and we can still take some lessons about resisting harassment from the women of the Russian Revolution.

In Russia in May 1917 some 40,000 predominantly women laundry workers went on strike. Among their key demands were maternity rights — they often ended up giving birth on the shop floor because they had no paid time off — and for an end to sexual harassment. The leading Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai took up their struggle and popularised it among the socialist movement. One of the greatest impacts of the strike was the way that it transformed people’s idea of what laundry women were like — where they had been seen as meek and lowly they became a symbol of the revolutionary movement.

The following month waiters and waitresses went on strike across Russian cities; one of their key demands was to be referred to by the formal “you” rather than the informal form, which was demeaning.

Factory workers demanded an end to body searches — which were carried out as workers arrived and left work each day. For women factory workers this entailed an added level of sexual humiliation and potential assault.

Remarkable

In their classic book, Midwives of the Revolution, Jane McDermid and Anna Hillya write:

“What is remarkable about the protests by workers after the February Revolution is the prominence of the service sector, including domestic servants, shop assistants and waitresses. The Bolsheviks alone seem to have recognised the political significance of such protests by women who until then were considered not only dormant but unreachable. Bolshevik women expended considerable effort in organising female workers, soldiers’ wives, and young women. Moreover, the women’s strike action served to pull them into the general labour movement, strengthening their consciousness of class interests.”

Even in a society which was incredibly socially conservative, in which women had barely been considered fully human, women organised collectively against their oppression, and in doing so they both changed the minds of male workers around them and they grew themselves as part of the wider struggle for a society free from exploitation.

The fact that the gains women won during and after the revolution were later reversed by Stalin does not mean we should forget the struggle they waged. A century on the workers Ehrenreich identifies as most vulnerable — domestic workers, hotel cleaners, waiting staff — are facing similar problems. If we don’t want the exploited and oppressed to be fighting the same battles again and again we have to win a better world for everyone.

The TUC report on sexual harassment is at: tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/SexualHarassmentreport2016.pdf