A TOXIC culture of sexual harassment, bullying of women, and sexism is endemic in local government across Scotland, according to female councillors.

Women politicians say the behaviour by men in councils is forcing women out of office.

Representatives from councils including Argyll and Bute, North Lanarkshire and Fife all told the Sunday Herald they were demeaned and "shut down" because of their gender. They also said that when they made attempts to have harassment dealt with the results were at best ineffectual and at worst ended up victimising them all over again.

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Leading the charge is Julie McKenzie SNP councillor for Oban North and Lorn with Argyll and Bute Council. Earlier this month she circulated an open letter asking her fellow councillors and council leaders to take action about the "misogynistic culture" in the local authority.

Her claims are backed by ex-North Lanarkshire SNP councillor Rosa Zambonini, who stepped down from the local authority after "a smear campaign" that included threats by councillors to reveal nude pictures of her. Fife Tory councillor Linda Holt also complained of "misogynistic bullying" which saw women "shamed" into silence. All three councils stressed they considered sexual harassment unacceptable.

Leading Scottish solicitor Aamer Anwar, who is representing McKenzie and Zambonini, said cases like these were "symptomatic" of others across Scotland. "There are still neanderthal dinosaurs in councils who are living in the dark ages," he said. "Women are forced to deal with comments about the way they look, innuendos, sexual remarks and bullying. It seems some of these councils should be deeply ashamed because they are more interested in not rocking the boat than they are in making change."

Women only make up 29 percent of councillors across Scotland, while 103 councillors have no women members and only six have female leaders, including both North Lanarkshire and Argyll Bute.

Talat Yaqoob, chair and co-founder of Women 5050 which campaigns for equal representation of women in politics, said: "Such an imbalance in power plays a huge role in the attitudes and behaviour that women have to put up with. Women being under-represented in power is part of the continuum of inequality that allows sexist behaviour, including sexual harassment, to go unreported, to be normalised, and contributes to the culture where women feel obliged to stay silent about their experiences. It is long overdue that this changed."

Councillor Alison Evison, President of Cosla - the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities - said that councils had procedures in place to deal with sexual harassment of staff, however, elected members did not always benefit from these systems.

"The allegations of sexual harassment among parliamentarians and figures in the media are something we should all take seriously," she added. "Cosla is aware that local government has a responsibility to show moral leadership and is also aware that we need to look at ways of developing a culture in which women feel ready to stand as councillors."

THEY TRIED TO MAKE THE WHISTLE-BLOWER A SCAPEGOAT
Julie McKenzie, SNP councillor, Argyll and Bute

HeraldScotland:

"It started with male councillors making comments about my appearance and demeanour," said Mackenzie, who was elected to the Oban North & Lorn ward in February 2016. She alleges she was treated to a barrage of harassment, called "a hot blonde", told she was "a distraction" at work and was looked at up and down in front of colleagues in a way she found demeaning.

"I realised females were seen as being inferior," she said. "We weren't expected to put forward our own opinions – we were expected to go along with our male colleagues without challenge. I was ridiculed or worse, completely ignored. As a women you are expected to sit down, be a good girl and do as you are told."

The "drip effect" of harassment and sexism built up, she said. It discredited her work and made her increasingly isolated and angry. High profile allegations of assault and harassment encouraged her to speak out by way of an open letter detailing charges, including reports of inappropriate touching which she claims were made by female staff. It was circulated it to all councillors and officials earlier this month.

The next morning when senior council officials said they would call her after 6pm, she expected a supportive discussion but found herself in an official conference call. "I wasn't allowed to speak," she said. "There was no empathy for my situation." She ended the 18 minute call "feeling like I'd been whacked over the head with a cricket bat" and was shocked when less than an hour later an email went to all councillors detailing the contents of the phone call and claiming she was taking up an official complaint.

McKenzie said she did not want to make an official complaint that would "name and shame" anyone, instead she was looking for an acknowledgement of what had happened and moves to "change the culture" in the council.

She sent a strongly worded reply correcting the official council email and instructed Aamer Anwar to write to the council laying out her concerns. It took 12 days for a response to come from corporate law firm Brodies, which she describes as "a study in denial and deflection".

"What they tried to do was to make the whistle-blower a scapegoat," she said. "The approach has been to tick a few boxes and hope I would go away. But I'm going nowhere."

SEXUAL HARASSMENT FORCED ME OUT OF POLITICS
Rosa Zambonini, former SNP councillor North Lanarkshire

HeraldScotland:

Rosa Zambonini, who served on North Lanarkshire Council from August 2015 until June this year when she was rushed to hospital with a suspected stroke, claims that sexual harassment and the bullying of women her forced out of politics "like a child hounded out of a school by playground bullies".

She says: "I have no doubt that my illness was as a result of that." Zambonini claims that she was subjected to the whole gamut of daily sexism – in one example she says a colleague took her aside to warn her against climbing over her desk in a skirt to fix her computer – to "vile abuse" including accusations that she was having an affair, which she strenuously denies and threats to reveal nude pictures of her, which she says do not exist.

"What shocked me most was the ability of certain people just to make stuff up and for there to be no accountability - that people were able to say: 'We'll just say she's had an affair.' It's dangerous stuff. I'm a single mother of two girls and they could see some of what was going on - they're not daft." She claims that senior council officials knew what was going on but were powerless to help her. She added that if any council officials were unaware of what was happening to her, that was also unacceptable.

She has written to UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for a response to her treatment at the hands of the Labour administration and believes the party should take responsibility. She says there are also questions for the council.

"Councillors are paid by the council and the council is responsible for anyone who is on the pay-roll," she adds.

THEY TRIED TO SHAME ME TO SHUT ME UP
Linda Holt, Tory councillor for Fife Council

HeraldScotland:

The allegations against Labour Alex Rowley MSP, who was previously the Leader of Fife Council, that he sent a series of abusive text messages to a woman who described him as a "serial bully" gave Holt pause for thought. Voted to represent East Neuk and Landward in May this year she claims her partner's mother had experienced the "misogynistic bullying" of another councillor that ended up with him posting her name and address on Twitter. "It was completely unacceptable, my partner complained to the council and got nothing," said Holt. "He is still on a community council and still abusing people."

She was disappointed when equality training for councillors was cancelled and slides on council policy distributed instead. She claims there is a striking contrast between the "professionalism of Fife council staff and the conduct of councillors".

"It's like councillors were gods who stand above everyone else," she said. "It's an old fashioned, macho culture and it's not changing fast enough," she added.

She claims she was "shut down" for proposing a motion shortly after being elected opposing plans for an cycle track in Lochgelly, by a member who stood up to say: "Ah, well, her boyfriend comes from Lochgelly."

"It was shocking," she said. "What has who I am sleeping with to do with anything? It was said to shame me and shut me up." It went unchallenged.

"There is still an assumption that women are there to make the tea and look decorative," she added. "It feels like an old boys' club. The result is anti-democratic because a significant number of people are not represented."

WHAT THE COUNCILS SAY

Argyll and Bute Council

Jane Fowler, head of HR who has responsibility for equalities, said: "Argyll and Bute Council has a zero tolerance approach to this kind of behaviour. We commend Councillor McKenzie for raising the issue of harassment. If a concern is raised, our priority is to take action to address it fully in order to put an end to it. We believe everyone deserves respect and dignity at work and this is embedded in our policies and procedures. Given public focus on this, we have reminded all councillors and staff of the support available to them if they encounter harassment."

North Lanarkshire Council

Paul Jukes, chief executive, said: "Harassment or sexual abuse in any form will not be tolerated in the workplace or in our communities and is utterly unacceptable in our society. Any specific reports of sexual harassment or abuse within the council will always be thoroughly investigated and we will work with our partner agencies to ensure that those who have made a complaint are fully and sympathetically supported. Beyond our formal procedures, confidential counselling and advice is available to all."

Fife Council

Linda Bissett, head of democratic services, said: “Councillor Holt has not made us aware of any complaints regarding the behaviour of any of our councillors. Councillors follow a national code of conduct, which is overseen by the Standards Commission and is very clear on the standards of behaviour expected. Any complaints received about the conduct of a councillor would be referred to the Standards Commission for the appropriate action. Fife Council takes issues around sexual discrimination and harassment very seriously, and would urge anyone who has a complaint to report it."

Political Parties

The Sunday Herald contacted SNP, Labour and Conservative party representatives for a comment. Only the SNP responded by forwarding a letter by Nicola Sturgeon detailing the party's commitment to tackling sexual harassment, which was published last month.