Women and Harrassment

The Lord Rennard issue grinds on. The man is now telling us of his ‘distress’ at the accusations of harassment but refusing to do more than a generalised and meaningless apology, and the women are still talking determinedly of their own upset, anger and sense of betrayal, so how are we to respond?

My guess is that most women will have some kind of comparable story and are watching with interest to see how this one unfolds.

As a very young woman, I had occasion to be visited in my office by my new boss whose purported mission was to give a token OK to the proofs of a book I had written. It was lunchtime and in those far-off days, people did actually have a lunch hour. My secretary (sic) had gone out to eat, but in any case I had a cellular office of my own – another vanished privilege. As I realised later, the whole of my floor was temporarily devoid of people.

He came in, and marched purposefully to where I was standing behind my desk. Instantly his right arm was around me and he was pulling me towards him as with the other hand he poked feebly at the galley proofs. Soon, the right hand was going where, as women in the LibDem case have alleged the Rennard arm went, to places where it had no business.

To say that I was paralysed with shock would be an understatement. I froze – and simultaneously burned with embarrassment. This man was more than thirty years my senior, older than my father and he was my direct boss. He was – well, how to put it as I saw him then? -an overweight, pompous man in his late fifties. Somehow I prized myself away, wobbled to the door, politely thanked him for coming and said in what was most probably a squeaky, tremulous voice that perhaps it might be helpful if he took the proofs away with him to have a good look in his own time.

How well I remember my fury and helplessness. Who could I complain to? No one senior, that was for sure. The phrase ‘sexual harassment‘ had yet to be invented. It never even crossed my mind to talk to the quaintly named ‘Personnel Officer’. I knew without even thinking about it that I would not be believed. I knew that I would be told that either I had exaggerated a ‘bit of fun’ or ‘a friendly gesture’ and had no sense of humour, or that I should feel ‘flattered’, or that somehow I was responsible for this man’s behaviour. He also had a degree of power over my career: a critical word might easily have scuppered my chances of a move to a different role in another department and a complaint would have been a black mark on my file not on his.

Still extremely upset, I waited for colleagues to reappear after lunch. My next door neighbour, Y, was a colleague doing a similar job. I went into her office. ‘You’ll never guess what that creep X has done…!’ And told her the story. I don’t remember how she responded. But three weeks later, to general astonishment, X and Y announced their engagement. They were both new to the organization and had been conducting a secret affair in their previous jobs for some time. His divorce had been finalised, so now they could come clean.

I hope she gave him a really hard time. Even if she did not, at the very least she had some inkling of his behaviour and knew what she was taking on.

As for me, I had already made plans to move on, successfully avoided him until I did – and made it my business to pass on to other women the NSIT message: Not Safe In Taxis, code for ‘never be alone with this guy’.

In the Rennard case, the focus now should be on why this political party could not have behaved in a less pusillanimous way and to have acted far more quickly and firmly. The impression, unfortunately, is that they still don’t get it. They do not seem to understand that power can give even the most unappealing man the fantasy that they are irresistible to young women and that however senior such a man is, complaints against him must be investigated thoroughly and promptly, even if they turn out to be baseless. They still don’t see that to lack the courage to act on your fine principles destroys trust, eats at the heart of the organization and in the case of a political party, makes you an extremely unattractive election prospect.