The fact that sexual harassment and assault are features of many workplaces hit the headlines again recently. The reports were greeted with surprise, ´how did we not know?´ But it was in the news not so long ago, during the US presidential campaign when the winning candidate boasted about assaulting women and getting away with it. Maybe this time, there will be permanent change, but I fear we´ll be shocked the next time there is a high-profile incident. Older feminists will again think, ´can´t believe we´re still protesting this sh**´.
I have the dubious distinction of being one of the first women to be harassed via electronic media, in 1981. The response of the (woman) director of the research institute where I worked was that I should be flattered. I experienced harassment when working in English universities in the 1980s and 1990s, not every day but enough to be annoying, sometimes threatening. It was always an abuse of power, intended to undermine confidence.
By the time I moved to the Netherlands in 1999, I was older, and benefited from the protection offered by the invisibility cloak that comes to women in middle age. As I spent more time here and my Dutch improved, I realised that women are woefully under-represented in Dutch academia, and perhaps because of that sexism thrives. At a conference in 2002, I spent every break counselling younger women about how to deal with the unwanted physical and verbal attentions of a powerful older man, who had influence over who and what got published. Many accepted it as an inevitable part of the deal when trying to make an academic career. This certainly wasn’t the only conference I’ve ever attended where harassment occurred, but it was in Maastricht, and it was particularly awful. At conferences, it is difficult to know what to do as there is no institutional personnel policy to invoke.
An invisibility cloak may offer protection from sexual harassment, but it has some downsides. What seems to be getting worse as I get older is being interrupted, ignored, patronised, mansplained, by men young and old.
I have worked with many very fine men, who would no sooner harass their women colleagues than poke out their own eyes. We need more joined-up thinking and action. The under-representation of women in senior academic positions, workplace harassment, all-male panels at conferences are connected. To stop the power of workplace abuse, we must continue to work towards creating an environment for students and staff where women are respected, and not silenced by unwanted intimacies and invisibility cloaks.
Sally Wyatt, Professor Digital Cultures at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences