LIKE many women journalists, I’ve had first-hand experience of sexual harassment. 

In the 20 years I’ve worked in the industry, I’ve been groped in the workplace by one male boss, bullied by another because I refused his advances. I’ve listened to countless similar stories from female colleagues and heard blatantly sexist and misogynistic language in the newsroom laughed off as “banter”. 

Mark Smith on the Question Time row

Sadly, I’m far from alone: TUC research suggests more than half of women have experienced sexual harassment at work. And each individual incident has similarly appalling behaviours at its core: abuse of power and a compete lack of respect for women. Such behaviour has been illegal for many years, of course, but it is only recently, in the #MeToo age, that the fundamental damage caused, both to women and wider society, is finally being recognised. Whether behaviour truly is changing remains to be seen but our tolerance of sexual harassment appears to be.

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As we see week in, week out, some men in positions of power are struggling to cope with this new world order. Take Sir Philip Green, the billionaire businessman at the centre of sexual harassment, racism and bullying allegations. 

He claims the Daily Telegraph has a “vendetta” against him, after dropping a legal action against the newspaper revealing details of serious accusations about his conduct in the workplace. Members of staff who made the allegations signed Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) – gagging clauses – after receiving pay-outs. 
Despite presenting himself as the victim, the Topshop boss failed to keep the allegations under wraps and it comes as no surprise that they make for extremely unpleasant reading. 

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They include allegations of groping and kissing a senior member of staff, calling her a “naughty girl” and making comments about her weight. A female staff member’s bottom was allegedly “slapped” on several occasions, according to male witnesses, while another executive, who is black, was allegedly mocked for having deadlocks and told he was “throwing spears in the jungle”. Sir Philip refutes any unlawful sexual or racist behaviour. 

Further investigations reveal key witness statements were left out of an internal report into sexual harassment, as were offensive remarks allegedly made by the tycoon about one of the complainers. The lawyer conducting the company probe later alleged during a court hearing that she was bullied by the man formerly known as “king of the high street”.

Like many rich individuals, the retail boss has a history of throwing money at problems in a bid to make them go away. In 2017 he agreed to pay a £363m cash settlement after the Pensions Regulator concluded that his main purpose in selling BHS, which he owned for 15 years, was to avoid responsibility for its pension scheme. After taking astronomical sums out of the business, he sold it for £1 in 2015. A year later the business went into administration with a £571m pension fund deficit. While Sir Philip sailed off on his yacht, more than 11,000 staff lost their jobs. 

The sums alleged to have been paid out as part of the NDAs – upwards of £1m – highlight how much Sir Philip can afford to spend. But they also suggest a fundamental lack of respect for the very concept of bad behaviour that resonates more widely across workplaces. Why would any man confront his behaviour when he or his bosses (who, let’s face it, are also still likely to be men) can just chuck some cash at the complainant to leave? 

Mark Smith on the Question Time row

As pointed out by many over the last few days, NDAs are clearly being used and abused by the rich and powerful to suppress the truth. And yes, Parliament needs to look at them to ensure they cannot be used to cover up illegal and/or unacceptable behaviour.

But more pressing is the need for companies and boards to overhaul their sexual harassment procedures to ensure complaints are properly dealt with in the first place, regardless of the seniority of those involved. As pointed out by lawyers in today’s Herald, despite a rise in the number of cases, victim blaming, bad management and a wish for accusations to be swept under the carpet are still resulting in far too many botched investigations. These are the factors that have prevented women – including myself – from reporting incidents to HR. Botched workplace investigations also, of course, create a need for stressful and expensive employment tribunals.

When even big employers get the process wrong (and they don’t get much bigger than the Scottish Government) faith collapses, forcing women to swallow the humiliation and let the alleged wrong-doers off the hook, often leaving their jobs in the process. That’s what perpetrators rely on. 
If we really believe as a society that sexual harassment is wrong, workplaces must deal with allegations in a timely and judicious manner. The law must help rather than hinder firms in doing so. Having more women in senior management positions would help. Most helpful of all, however, would be for men to stop sexually harassing women.