Blog by Kathryn Nawrockyi, Director, Opportunity Now
I am incensed. So incensed I have decided to say something about it. As Melinda Gates said: ‘A woman with a voice is by definition a strong woman’ – and I have certainly found my voice.
While standing on the platform waiting for my train home last night, I was reading an article about UN Special Rapporteur Rashida Manjoo, whose recent visit to UK led her to conclude that the UK has a "boys' club sexist culture". She is not wrong. As I read, I realised the man to my right was staring at me; I moved to the other side, he turned to stare again. I then stood behind him and so he struggled to stare, but instead he followed close behind me when I went to get onto the train. I made a swift dash for another door and managed to lose him.
That was the second time this week I had experienced harassment in public. The first time involved being whistled at imperatively by two men as I walked home alone – imagine how you would whistle if you were calling a dog – yes, like that. I snapped – “do you really think women respond to that?” I demanded.
“ The white noise of sexism and harassment never quite goes away – it shapes our experience at work, at home, and on the street ”
After years of experiencing street harassment, I have found my voice. I have been using it to campaign of course, but this time I chose to use it more directly. Arguably at my own risk – I would advise no one to confront two men in the street, alone, at night. But if my choice is to be complicit in the silencing that means such behaviour routinely goes unchallenged, quietly walk away and continue the campaign or call it out on the spot, I am now more inclined to find my voice in that moment.
I have been following the Everyday Sexism campaign closely on Twitter – a daily stream of reports from women (and men) of everyday experiences of abuse, harassment and misogyny. Whenever I read these indictments, I feel sad and angry. I am also heartened to see thousands of women having the courage to speak out on this scale about everyday sexism. Young women too – the next generation of our workforce, who may soon be dealing head-on with occupational segregation or unequal pay.
As a campaigner for women’s equality at work, naturally I am interested to read those experiences that take place in the workplace. I am sorry to say a great number of them are grimly familiar: women being discouraged from applying for roles, managers making sexually explicit remarks about female colleagues, women in their underwear being used to market products that are not...well...underwear. The white noise of sexism and harassment never quite goes away – it shapes our experience at work, at home, and on the street.
Workplace inequality and social inequality are inextricably linked. Workplace cultures in turn both influence and are influenced by wider societal attitudes, and I am clear that we cannot isolate the workplace from the wider fight against gender inequality.
Hardly surprising then that in Opportunity Now’s recent national study of women at work, Project 28-40, a staggering 52% of women aged 28-40 told us they have experienced some form of bullying or harassment at work in the past 3 years – and 12% have experienced some form of sexual harassment. The figures are more disturbing still when disaggregated for women’s diversity – amongst those groups more vulnerable to harassment in the workplace are women with disabilities, black and minority ethnic women and lesbian, gay and bisexual women.
When we talk to senior leaders about these experiences they are horrified – no Chief Executive wants to believe that such behaviours are prevalent in their own organisation. The overall picture should galvanise employers into action. Project 28-40 gives us 25,000 voices to drive real change – Opportunity Now will be working with with employers to turn those voices into actions.
There is a powerful role for business to play in challenging the status quo. Until we fix social inequality, we are never going to achieve true parity in the labour force. At the harshest end of the spectrum, it is estimated that one in five women over the age of 16 has experienced some form of sexual violence. We should remember that women in our workforce – our colleagues, managers, leaders, supervisors, and reports – are already subject to a wider continuum of inequality.
We need people – women and men, managers and leaders – to start by calling out the bad behaviour. So the next time you witness someone abusing their power – whether on the street or at work – will you find your voice? In doing so, you might just inspire others to find theirs.