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Sexism and harassment at work creating a ‘mental health timebomb’ for women

Annie McLaughlin is the winner of the 2016 Write to End Violence Against Women bursary. She will be writing articles for our media partner, the Sunday Herald, around the topics of violence against women and gender equality. Find out more about Annie here.

This article was originally published in The Sunday Herald. Read it here

NEW research has revealed shocking levels of sexism and harassment in Scotland’s public sector workplaces. Nearly two-thirds of employees surveyed by violence against women charity Zero Tolerance said that they had suffered or witnessed sexual harassment or innuendo at work, and one in 10 female respondents had been subjected to physical or mental violence in the workplace, including rape and sexual assault. Half had experienced sexual objectification, and the charity has warned of a “mental health time bomb”.

The survey – which targeted the public sector – set out to assess what measures employers are taking to protect women from harassment and violence at work. It also found that sexism and misogyny are an everyday occurrence for many employees.

Amy Marshall, Zero Tolerance’s Educators and Employers Development Officer, said: “I was shocked but not surprised at the level of casualised misogyny and violence taking place, particularly in the public sector. The long-term effects are simply untold. Women reported that they were stressed, agitated and depressed; suggesting a mental health time bomb.”

Women described a range of experiences, including unwanted sexual advances, sexual comments directed at themselves or other women and accusations that they had slept with senior colleagues to climb the career ladder.

Some 31 per cent were unsure about whether their employer would be supportive if they reported sexism or harassment, with some saying they had felt unable to report past abuse for fear of recriminations.

One woman said: “In my last job … I was being sexually harassed by the director. There was also a culture of casual racism, sexism and homophobia which made me feel like, if I made a complaint, I would be ostracised. In the end, I threatened complaint and the director apologised and stopped harassing me. However, he no longer asked me to do certain tasks, which threatened my chances of progression. I felt like I did not want to work there any more. I felt panicked, I had trouble sleeping sometimes. In the end, I left.”

Another said: “It had a negative impact on my confidence and ability to focus on the job. I felt disgusted by my colleague’s sexual innuendos but felt unable to speak up about it. I assumed people would say that I had somehow invited it.”

The Sunday Herald has been given exclusive access to the findings, with the full report due to be published later this month. The research is the first of its kind to assess levels of sexism, harassment and violence against women in Scottish workplaces.

In August last year, UK-wide research by the TUC and Everyday Sexism Project found that half of all women and nearly two-thirds of women aged 18 to 24 had experienced sexual harassment at work. One in five women reported that they had experienced unwanted sexual advances, with one in eight being touched intimately or kissed against their will.

Emma Ritch, Executive Director of Engender, Scotland’s feminist organisation campaigning against sexism and gender inequality, said: “Work done by the TUC in the summer suggests that over half of women in UK workplaces have experienced some form of sexual harassment. Despite the proliferation of workplace policies that pay lip service to equality and dignity at work, organisations are failing to get a grip of their employees’ harmful and damaging behaviour.

“Tolerating sexual harassment sends a powerful signal to female employees that they and their work are not respected and valued. Employers and unions need to work together to identify where it is happening in individual workplaces and take proactive steps to stamp it out.

Zero Tolerance is calling for urgent action from employers, the Scottish Government and unions to tackle the underlying attitudes and stereotypes which perpetuate violence against women and gender inequality, as well as to establish better support for women who experience sexism at work or disclose violence at work or home.

Some 62 per cent of survey respondents were unable to describe any positive measures being taken to counteract sexism in their workplace, with 73 per cent unsure or not aware of a specific violence against women policy in their organisation.

Marshall said: “Misogyny and violence are a part of our wider culture. When we stereotype women as overly emotional, for example, as our study found, it’s easier to dismiss their claims of violence as exaggerated and begin to buy into myths around violence.”

By addressing attitudes that exist within their workplaces, employers can help to dismantle “harmful gender stereotypes that reinforce gendered power imbalances”, she added.

More than a third of respondents described experiencing gender-based bullying or teasing. One woman said: “I found out that when I was being considered for a promotion at work, senior managers were discussing my age and whether I had indicated if I was planning on having a baby. I felt very angry [at] this. I also felt very intimidated that they would only value me in my work if I did not take time off to have babies.”

Some 42 per cent reported experiencing double standards at work for men and women, including allocation of tasks or types of work based on gender.

One respondent said: “I was repeatedly assumed as the assistant, secretary or minute-taker rather than the lead. Although my senior male colleague would correct this when I was given coffee orders (without asking) and referred to as ‘honey’, ‘sweetheart’ and even patted on the ass, the same male colleague would then take credit for the business and [money] brought in by these meetings at all staff get-togethers.”

The report warns of the consequences of ignoring or underestimating sexism and harassment in the workplace, including long-term effects on women workers’ mental health and productivity.

One respondent’s comments shed light on the effects a sexist atmosphere can have on employee performance. “I questioned my loyalty to the organisation,” she said. “I didn’t work as hard for a while. I took longer lunch breaks, came in late and left early. I didn’t care about the organisation, its aims or objectives and took no active part in trying to help move things forward.”

Another said: “It made me feel like I wasn’t valued as highly as my male colleagues. It’s a subtle thing but it gives you the message that you aren’t as interesting, important or worthwhile. It feels like you don’t have a voice unless you speak on so-called male terms. You have to cover up how you feel and pretend to be more calculated and without feeling because in the dominant ‘corporate’ culture; those are the traits people want to see.”

By law, employers can be taken to tribunal if they fail to protect staff from sexual harassment or discrimination. Since the introduction of tribunal fees for employees in July 2013, the number of cases brought has dropped by 70 per cent.

In August, the TUC’s report into workplace sexual harassment called for the UK Government to abolish tribunal fees to remove barriers to justice for women who had been victimised because of their gender. The Scottish Government have already committed to abolishing employment tribunal fees.

Under current laws, employers cannot be held responsible for harassment or abuse of women perpetrated by third parties such as customers or business clients. However, companies may still face consequences if it can be proven they failed to prevent the abuse.

One shopworker, Karen, told the Sunday Herald that she was made to feel neurotic and was pushed out of her job after reporting being sexually harassed by a customer.

She had been helping the man with a purchase when he began to make inappropriate comments. Karen said: “He suddenly stopped and said, ‘You are so unbelievably beautiful’. I just kind of laughed awkwardly and tried to change the subject. He later said he’d like to get me alone ‘to see if I was beautiful all over’.”

The man later returned and repeatedly tried to get Karen alone, in an area of the shop where there were no security cameras. She reported the incidents to her manager, who said that there was no action he could take since the man was a customer. He did not confront the man or ask him not to return and Karen felt she was left with no choice but to walk out.

The store owners later emailed Karen to apologise and promised to speak to the manager. The email assumed she would not be returning to work however and offered her one month’s salary as compensation.

Karen said: “I was now without a job and felt like I’d taken hush money. I felt let down and like I had been made out to be hysterical.”

In another workplace, Karen worked alongside a heavily pregnant woman who was being sexually harassed by a male colleague. He would make sexual comments to the woman and on one occasion backed her into a corner and touched her.

Karen supported the woman to report the incidents to their female manager, but says that they were ignored and the incidents dismissed as unimportant. Both women resigned, but Karen recognises that financial necessity will leave some women trapped in abusive work environments.

She said: “I suppose I was ‘lucky’, I wasn’t on the breadline, so was able to leave both jobs. Many women don’t have that escape route.”

Zero Tolerance’s report praises general gender equality initiatives such as Athena SWAN, which aims to tackle gender imbalances and improve workplace culture in universities. The University of Strathclyde’s Equally Safe In Higher Education programme is also working to eradicate gender-based violence against both staff and students on Scotland’s campuses.

However, the charity says that Scotland’s employers still have work to do in tackling sexism and misogyny, including better support mechanisms for women experiencing violence and promotion of an anti-sexist workplace environment. It also stresses the need for employers to recognise that sexual harassment is linked to wider gender inequalities and match up violence against women initiatives in the workplace with action around women’s job security, career progression and reducing unequal pay.

Zero Tolerance has developed the PACT programme for businesses in Scotland to help them tackle violence and harassment of women at work. The programme is targeted both at those experiencing abuse and their managers and colleagues.

Only 26 per cent of managers who responded to the research reported that they would be confident in dealing with incidents of violence against women in the workplace.

Marshall said: “Employers are still sometimes unable to pick up on the signs of abuse or appropriately assess the correct support mechanisms needed to challenge hostile attitudes to women.

“However, the responses do show a clear appetite for change in the Scottish workforce, both from employers and employees. If employers take up the mantle and make some changes to their workplace, we could make real strides in creating a more gender equal workforce.

“Ultimately this will benefit the employers too; those who spend some time and energy promoting a healthy and supportive workplace will retain talented staff, avoid litigation and lead a more productive team.”

Read ‘”Sexism is a waste”: the need to tackle violence and misogyny in Scotland’s workplaces’ here

Employers looking to improve their workplaces can find further information on the Zero Tolerance website

Anyone experiencing gender-based violence at work should contact with their local union or Citizens Advice Bureau or the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre or Equality Advisory Service

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Drama in the dock: does The Fall glamorise rape and violence against women?

Annie McLaughlin is the winner of the 2016 Write to End Violence Against Women bursary. She will be writing articles for our media partner, the Sunday Herald, around the topics of violence against women and gender equality. Find out more about Annie here.

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Herald on Sunday 25th September – read it here

AS the nights shorten, broadcasters are unveiling their autumn TV schedules, and among the most eagerly awaited dramas is the third series of BBC2’s psychological thriller The Fall. Starring Gillian Anderson as DCI Stella Gibson, the enigmatic Metropolitan Police detective on the trail of Belfast serial killer Paul Spector played by Jamie Dornan, the critically acclaimed drama has become one of the channel’s most watched of the past decade, attracting over three million viewers.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the return of a programme which – alongside other hit TV dramas such as HBO’s Game Of Thrones – has attracted opprobrium for its depiction of violence against women.

In a departure from the “whodunnit” format of traditional crime drama, Spector was revealed to The Fall’s audience as the killer almost immediately. Early episodes showed him hiding in plain sight as a seemingly devoted husband, father and professional bereavement counsellor, with scenes of him plotting and carrying out sadistic sexual attacks and murders juxtaposed with cosy domestic vignettes. Over two series, his double life unravelled as Gibson closed in, their deadly game of cat and mouse culminating in a cliffhanger which saw Gibson cradling a potentially fatally wounded Spector in her arms.

Series three’s much awaited first episode, screening this Thursday, sees Spector fighting for his life in hospital while Gibson clings to the hope that he will survive to be tried and convicted for his crimes.

However, along with rave reviews, The Fall has attracted criticism for prolonged scenes of the stalking, torture and murder seen through the killer’s eyes, which some argued were at worst a glamorisation and sexualisation of the degradation and killing of women in the name of entertainment.

Critic Terence Blacker accused the first series of presenting scenes of abuse and killing of women “as an intense sexual experience, at the excitingly taboo end of things”, albeit “without any crudely explicit detail”.

Eyebrows were also raised at the casting of ex-underwear model Jamie Dornan as Spector and his subsequent turn as sadomasochistic “sex symbol” Christian Grey in Fifty Shades Of Grey. While The Fall can perhaps take credit for reminding viewers that violent, murderous men can also be handsome and charming, it’s perhaps telling that even Dornan himself has made the link between the two roles, joking that with one job following another, he’d had “seven months straight of tying up women”.

The Fall’s writer Allan Cubitt says he finds accusations that his work sexualised violence against women “personally insulting”, claiming that they affected him so much that he was forced to consult with his 22-year-old daughter on whether he should pay them any mind. She assured him that he should not.

Series one certainly featured several drawn-out scenes of women being tortured and strangled, the camera watching unflinchingly from above as they struggled against Spector and his restraints and lingering over their half-naked bodies in rooms lit like soft porn sets as he arranged and photographed them after death.

Cubitt says critics miss the point – that The Fall’s stance is one of a “particular criticism of patriarchy and the way male violence sits in the patriarchy”. He claims that “the most violent” act we actually see Spector commit is against another man.

Cubitt’s is certainly not the only big drama facing charges of irresponsibly presenting violence against women. In particular, Game Of Thrones has been accused of excessive sexual violence against its female characters.

Many fans and critics finally lost patience with the show after an episode depicted the brutal rape of central character, Sansa Stark. They saw the scene as both gratuitous and inappropriate in its point of view, since it did not feature in the books on which the show is based.

Gary Davey, managing director of content at Sky (whose Sky Atlantic channel hosts Game Of Thrones in the UK) dismissed such criticism as “nonsense”. Washington Post critic Alyssa Rosenberg attempted to defend the show claiming that sexual violence is not merely used as a lazy plot device, but that “rape and denial of sexual autonomy” is central to the narrative and what the story is actually about.

Central to the debate over misogynistic violence on the small screen is the question of artistic licence versus the responsibility of dramatists.

Some argue that it’s the very prevalence of gender-based violence in society that makes it an important topic for drama. Critic Michael Deacon claimed that by “criticising The Fall and its kind, we’re focusing on the wrong problem. If TV drama abounds with terrorised women, that doesn’t mean it’s hackneyed or cheap. It means it’s true to life. And if it’s graphically disturbing – well, so it should be. There’s no way to make palatable the truth about what men do to women”.

Professor Karen Boyle, Co-Director of the Centre for Gender and Feminist Studies and Chair in Feminist Media Studies at the University of Stirling, points out that “the representation of violence against women on television is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. When it’s handled well, it can allow viewers who are experiencing abuse to recognise that they are not alone and even encourage them to seek help”.

The big question of course is: how far should we expect writers to actively fight violence against women? The primary purpose of drama, after all, is to entertain and enthral, and storytellers have a long history of inflicting brutality and murder upon both their female and male characters as a sure-fire way of raising the stakes in their dramas and the adrenaline of their audiences.

Writers and directors of television drama may rightly point out that they are not journalists but storytellers and that they cannot afford to club audiences over the head with a particular social message at the risk of interrupting the flow of a narrative. Viewers are adept at recognising when social commentary has been shoehorned into a plot line and are likely to switch off, either literally or emotionally, when it happens.

However, dramatists are as capable as journalists of both reinforcing and challenging myths and problematic attitudes towards gender-based violence when they choose to feature it in their work. Surely, therefore, they share a certain amount of power and responsibility to contribute to the fight to stamp it out?

What can writers of drama series do, then, to avoid sensationalising, glamorising or minimising violence against women in their work while at the same time paying due attention to the need to enthral and entertain rather than lecture audiences? Boyle recognises that crime drama deals in thrills, shock and intrigue but highlights the high female body count in many series as a particular issue, commenting that when audiences are drawn into a game of guessing which woman will die next, those women become little more than disposable plot devices. She cites Danish drama The Killing, which explores the investigation into a single murder and its ramifications, particularly on the victim’s family, as evidence that good crime drama does not need a conveyor belt of dead women.

Similarly, while dramatists should not need to deny that there are often sexual elements to male violence, they can avoid suggesting that sex rather than misogyny are the motivations for such crimes. In doing so, they would not only avoid accusations of using women’s dead bodies to titillate viewers, but play an important part in increasing awareness of violence against women.

Boyle points to soap operas, whose timescale allows them to expose and explore the serial nature of men’s violence against women over a long period in a way that often seems to be a challenge for writers of drama series, who may have as few as six episodes in which to develop and resolve plots and sub plots.

Producers of serial drama could learn from shows such as BBC Radio 4 soap The Archers. It was widely praised by domestic abuse charities for its treatment of a recent storyline which concluded with character Helen Titchener being found not guilty of the attempted murder of her abusive husband Rob.

Allan Cubitt’s reaction to accusations that The Fall serves to reinforce Paul Spector’s misogynistic worldview may suggest that series three is unlikely to mollify his critics. With Spector incapacitated, however, the show would now have an opportunity to take a break from the killing to explore and potentially answer some of the criticisms which have been made against it.

There are some signs in episode one that Cubitt may have taken this on board, including an explicitly anti victim-blaming speech that Stella Gibson gives to the husband of Rose Stagg, one of Spector’s surviving victims, in which she gently but unequivocally berates him for suggesting that Rose was somehow complicit in her assault because she didn’t physically struggle against Spector when he abducted her.

The experience which is prioritised is still very much Spector’s, though, rather than that of the women whose lives he has taken or attempted to take. The central question of the episode is whether he will live or die and, even in his comatose state, we are granted an insight into his psyche through dreamlike sequences in which he appears caught in a tunnel between this world and another.

If The Fall could find space for less of Spector’s perverse point of view and more for how his extreme actions sit within a wider context of gender inequality and everyday violence against women, the drama could be remembered for its success in challenging pervasive but unhelpful myths around gender-based violence as much as for its carefully crafted dialogue, plot twists and the committed performances of its lead actors. The jury, so far, remains out.

The Sunday Herald is the media partner for this year’s Write to End Violence Against Women Awards. The awards celebrate high quality writing around violence against women. The awards are organized by Zero Tolerance and supported by Engender, NUJ Scotland, White Ribbon Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, Everyday Victim Blaming, Women 50:50, Rape Crisis Scotland, Women for Independence and the Scottish Refugee Council. The closing date for submissions is September 30. For more information visit https://writetoendvaw.com/how-to-enter/

One week to go: Friday’s featured category – Student and Youth

This is the final week to nominate articles for the 2016 awards! Each day during‎ WritetoEndVAW‬ ‪#‎1Week2Go‬, we’ll be featuring a different award category.

Students and young people often bring new perspectives and insightful thought to writing on gender inequality and violence against women. The Write to End Violence Against Women Awards recognise the excellent work of the next generation of journalists with a dedicated category for Best Article – Student and Youth.

The terms and conditions for this category are:student-category-photo

  • Article must have been written by a student
  • (this includes students at school, college and university as well as mature students) or by an author aged 26 or under.
  • Article can be news, comment or feature.
  • Author may or may not have received financial compensation for the piece.

Deadline for Submissions: 30th September, 2016

You can nominate your own writing or someone else’s, and you can make as many nominations as you like!

For full details, please visit our How to Enter page.

To stay informed about the awards, like the Write to End VAW Awards Facebook page and follow our Twittefeed. Follow the hashtag #WritetoEndVAW.

Gina Davidson, winner of the Gender Equality in Political Reporting Award for her “Let’s hear it for the smart girls” article published in the Edinburgh Evening News

Over the festive break, we’ll be sharing reflections from each of our 2015 Write to End Violence Against Women Awards winners which were originally published in the National Newspaper on 11 December 2015.

BACK in 1992 when the Zero Tolerance campaign launched in Edinburgh and was considered controversial for putting the issue of domestic abuse on the flagpoles of Princes Street and on the sides of Lothian buses, I was just starting out on my career in journalism.

Covering “women’s issues” wasn’t even a consideration – I just wanted to tell people’s stories and uncover wrongs in society; to get an exclusive.

It turns out that the stories which I’ve told, the wrongs which I’ve “uncovered” have too often involved women – too many women – who have suffered domestic assault, violence, rape and other physical and mental abuses.

You run campaigns for organisations like Women’s Aid, you write editorials welcoming new policies in tackling domestic abuse, you search for ever more powerful testimony from women whose lives are shattered, and yet you can be left wondering if any of it has impact.

That’s why the Write to End Violence Against Women awards are important. They are a recognition that newspaper journalists are trying to get to the heart of an issue which shames Scotland – as well as being a conscience to a media which can still be inherently sexist.

You can read Gina’s winning piece by linking through here.

 

Gina

Gina received her award from Women 5050’s Talat Yaqoob

Judith Duffy, winner of Best Article – News for her Sunday Herald piece on street harassment.

Over the festive break, we’ll be sharing reflections from each of our 2015 Write to End Violence Against Women Awards winners which were originally published in the National Newspaper on 11 December 2015.

I WAS delighted to win the award for best news article at this year’s Write to End Violence Awards, which had so many fantastic entries in all categories.

My article published in the Sunday Herald – ‘Scottish women taking on the sexist curse of street harassment’ – was written in the wake of the case of Poppy Smart, a young woman who went to the police after being plagued by wolf-whistling and sexist comments from builders every day.

The article uncovered some shocking statistics about the levels of sexual harassment experienced by women in the street and highlighted the work being done by movements like Hollaback, which encourages women to share their experiences of unwelcome jeers and obscenities.

Too often this issue is dismissed as harmless banter or wolf-whistling – yet it is something which impacts on everyday lives. Many women will have experienced that feeling of dread walking past a building site on their own.

As one of the Hollaback campaigners noted, 10 years ago street harassment wasn’t even a term, just something that happened. It is mainly thanks to the efforts of women like Poppy Smart that attitudes are beginning to change.

You can read Judith’s winning piece by linking through here.

 

Judith

Judith received her award from Richard Walker of the National

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