Why did it take the Harvey Weinstein scandal to shine a light on the subject of sexual harassment in public life? The shocking reports of how one powerful man used his position to sexually harass and abuse young and less powerful women over decades has led to institutions across the world questioning their own practices and addressing their own cultural challenges regarding sexual harassment.
For once women are able to speak openly concerning their experiences and for now they are being listened to. A zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment has to be the norm and not the exception.
This approach was evident in the debate in the European Parliament where the majority of those speaking held pieces of paper with the hashtag ‘me too’ and talked about their own experiences of sexual harassment and abuse. Two observations were made about the debate.
Firstly, where were the men? The majority of those present were women. I personally believe that the majority of men do not commit sexual harassment. Those who do should be condemned and held to account for their unacceptable actions. As the majority of men I know are against sexual harassment, it would have been even more effective if more men had stood up to condemn sexual harassment from across the chamber, left to right. As 90% of the victims of sexual harassment are female, we need more men to be outspoken advocates for women’s rights and stand up against harassment of any kind.
Secondly, why was the chamber not full during such an important and topical debate? As always in the European Parliament, with designated group speaking time, one minute speeches and short debate timings, the chamber appeared empty. For an ordinary observer switching on their television to watch the debate, the European Parliament, on an initial glance, would seem not to be taking the subject particularly seriously. It would have been good to have taken the unusual step and to have had the debate during a voting session to ensure that more people were present and participated. As it stood, on the 26 October, a well-crafted resolution on combating sexual harassment and abuse in the EU was adopted. The culture change which is needed to protect and help victims and for those perpetrators to be held to account for their actions is not easy but one which has to be challenged and enforced.
EU law defines sexual harassment as ‘where any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature occurs, with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.’ From the Victim’s Rights Directive to the Istanbul convention on preventing and combating violence, from the Charter of Fundamental Rights to the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, EU member states have signed up to numerous legally binding decisions, declarations and strategies combating violence against women including action on sexual harassment. Yet why do so many women experience sexual harassment when they are doing their work or simply enjoying an evening out with friends? Why do women suffer indignities that men do not?
Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of London’s Royal Court Theatre, encapsulates how many feel: ‘The reason I’m so angry is I’m so shocked that we’d got to this point and we’d all accepted it. We all knew about it! We. All. Knew’. This complicity and lack of action has driven Featherstone to create a code of behaviour to combat sexual harassment in the theatre world. Should the political world not be following her lead? Instead the male perpetrators would appear to be seeking highly-paid lawyers to defend themselves whilst the victims have no access to justice. Jess Philips MP has called for legal aid to be made available to victims. And so it should be.
For all organisations, whether political, public/private or otherwise, the subject of sexual harassment and how the victim is treated, how the situation is effectively resolved and where the victim has redress and closure, will require increasing attention. No workplace is immune. No social situation spared. This requires a culture change like no other.
This is why after the plenary vote in Strasbourg, together with other fellow MEPs, I called upon the President of the European Parliament to authorise an investigation into sexual harassment, as we need a culture change in our institution. There should be better provisions to protect people from harassment in the first place, a more effective way to report incidents of sexual harassment and more and better action taken to support the victims of harassment. A code of conduct for MEPs would be a step in the right direction to tackle abuse and support best practice. For the next European elections in 2019, a code of behaviour should be a prerequisite for all candidates to sign up to and, if not, they should not be eligible to be a candidate.
Sadly, this will not apply to UK candidates as we will no longer be standing, but for the EU27, this should become a standard cross-party/cross-country practise. I look forward to seeing if this becomes a reality. A zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment is the only way forward.
Catherine Stihler MEP is Vice Chair of the European Parliament’s Internal Market Committee and has been a Labour MEP for Scotland since 1999. She is Labour’s European Consumer Rights Spokesperson and a Member of the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee.