An Abuse of Power

The personal is political, so they say, and Rozanne Foyer (General Secretary of the Scottish TUC) uses her own experience to illustrate the difficulty many women face in holding powerful men to account for abusing their power and positions of influence at the workplace.

A passionate, very powerful piece and timely riposte to those who argue the matter is now closed (pending more conspiracy revelations) and that there should be no further public debate about the underlying behaviour.

STUC's Rozanne Foyer: 'It wasn’t criminal, but some of Alex Salmond’s admitted actions amount to abuse of power in the workplace'

By Rozanne Foyer (STUC) Sunday Herald

It wasn’t criminal and it wasn’t properly investigated, but some of Alex Salmond’s admitted actions amount to abuse of power in the workplace which is all too prevalent, and all the worse when it came from the then most powerful man in Scotland.

I haven’t worked with Alex Salmond but I was once a civil servant and I, too, once received an apology for inappropriate behaviour. It didn’t make me feel any better then and it doesn’t make me feel any better now.

I was 17, I was enthusiastic, eager to learn and yes, probably a bit naïve. I felt flattered and excited when a senior manager started to take an interest in my development and gave me opportunities to further my skills. That feeling ended abruptly when at a work night out in the shared taxi ride home he launched himself on top of me, hands everywhere and mouth over my face trying to kiss me. This all happened in front of my immediate supervisor, a younger man who sat across from us. He looked utterly horrified but said and did nothing as I struggled to push the senior manager off me, made my excuses and jumped out of the cab to walk the last few blocks home in the pouring rain.

I’d love to tell you that I marched into work the next day with my grievance at the ready and stopped this man, who was old enough to be my father, from ever abusing his power over young women in that way again. But that’s not what happened. I walked into work feeling dirty and anxious, I received a mumbled, uncomfortable apology from my supervisor about how he’d wanted to intervene but had felt unable to act against our boss.

He advised me not to worry about it as the boss had been so drunk he’d probably forgotten all about it.

He might have forgotten, but I hadn’t. I quickly found that my work became intolerable, I lost my confidence and enthusiasm, I felt my supervisor could no longer look me in the eyes and I was left having panic attacks in the toilets whenever the senior manager in question made an appearance on our floor. Within a few months I’d got myself out of there to a new job in a different Government department.

I’d done nothing wrong, but I still felt ashamed of myself because instead of standing up to injustice I’d simply run away. It was this formative workplace experience that helped spark my workplace activism, it drove me to join the union in my next job, put myself forward to be a rep, and get trained to become a sexual harassment support officer because I wanted to be there to support and empower others who found themselves in the same sort of helpless situation as I had.

Sadly, 30 years on not much has changed and my own experience remains normal for women today. TUC research shows that over half of women in the UK (52%) have experienced sexual harassment while at work and this figure rises to almost two-thirds (63%) for younger women in the 16-24 age bracket.

Yet research undertaken by the Young Women’s Trust has found just 6% of young women who experienced sexual harassment say they have reported it. One in five young women said they either didn’t know how to report sexual harassment, or were too scared to, because of concerns that this might mean losing their job or being given fewer hours.

Their findings also indicated that one in 14 young women reported being treated less well in their job, or while looking for work, because they had rejected sexual advances. Very few women (only 1%) reported the incident to a union rep. It’s clear that right across society we are failing to protect women from harassment in the workplace.

So what then does the current public discourse around the Salmond case do to help us address this injustice? My fear is that it has done more damage than good. The reaction to the case speaks volumes about where we are, culturally, with regards to women’s rights.

It feels to me like the voices of the women who tried to stand up to inappropriate workplace behaviour are being drowned out in a sea of party politicking.

Yes, the courts have made their ruling and a jury of women and men has found that there was no proof of criminality, but what about what has been admitted to? Can it ever be acceptable to be involved in encounters with your subordinates when there are such steep power imbalances involved?

Whatever else happens, we should be using this case to make clear the boundaries of what is and what isn’t appropriate behaviour in the workplace.

Unions and employers must ensure robust independent procedures are in place to empower and support women to come forward and challenge inappropriate behaviour no matter how powerful the perpetrator. It needs to be accepted that when multiple people come forward to say there is a harassment problem in the workplace, this is something that must be investigated.

Power imbalances exist in all workplaces. And yes, trade unions are no more immune to these power imbalances than any other organisation.

Everyone needs to get their house in order.

Alex Salmond has said himself that he is “no angel”. What does it say about Scotland that the most powerful man in politics could engage in inappropriate ways towards his staff? What does it say about our culture, and what we are willing to accept in a workplace, that thousands of people continue to rush to his defence?

How many women have been driven out of politics, out of public life and out of workplaces, because of the inappropriate approach of men?

In many workplaces – more than many would like to admit – informal “protection networks” exist. This isn’t new, nor is it unusual. It is a way for women to try to keep each other safe. Women rely on each other for solidarity and yes, issues are more likely to be raised if women act together.

Irrespective of the outcome of the court case, or indeed the outcome of the parliamentary inquiry, to disregard what has happened to many women across Scotland who have experienced workplace harassment would be an injustice.

In Scotland, we often like to think of ourselves as a forward-thinking, progressive and welcoming society. However, for me the case of Alex Salmond exposes the deep-rooted, endemic, male-dominated, deeply conservative culture that still exists. Women are expected to tolerate such behaviour, for the good of their male colleagues and out of loyalty to their workplace.

The Alex Salmond case has opened up discussion and debate, and we must tackle this face on.

Only when more women feel empowered to stand up to inappropriate behaviour will those who abuse their power in the workplace realise that they can no longer get away with it. Employers, unions, the media, politicians and all of us have a duty to do more to make that happen.

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