The Rennard revelations have been followed by thousands of women, but not all of them totally sympathise with his ‘victims.’ Older career women who dealt with sexism and survived unscathed think they need to toughen up. Are they right, asks Sheilagh Matheson
Sexual harassment, unwanted sexual advances, inappropriate touching. Having spent all my working life in newspaper and television newsrooms, and now volunteering occasionally in HM prisons, I’m fascinated by the Lib Dems furore over the women who say they were victims of Lord Rennard’s “touching” and inappropriate sexual suggestions. I wish I had more details of what exactly he did, and I sympathise with the women… to an extent.
It reminds me of the time I was interviewing the Duke of Devonshire 30 years ago, and he plied me with sherry at 11am after I demurred at a tumbler of whisky. He leaned forward in his seat, stroked my leg, explained that he hated formality then asked me to call him “Your Grace.” Silly old git, I thought, and dined out of the tale for years.
Today in prison, where I now work, I was signing myself out of the vulnerable prisoner wing (aka sex offenders) when an older prison officer belched and farted noisily then sighed with satisfaction – all of which I interpreted as his way of expressing what he thought of do-gooders like me. I laughed and said: “Better out than in, eh?” and breezed out of the office without waiting for his reaction. But I really felt threatened, bullied, intimidated, harassed, demeaned, violated, traumatised and in need of counselling. Actually, I didn’t. I felt superior to the thick pillock.
It wasn’t as bad as the Head of News and News Editor standing in the middle of a TV newsroom staring at my chest and discussing whether I was wearing a padded bra. I really was embarrassed because I was flat-chested and yes, it was padded. But there was no way on earth I would give them the satisfaction of knowing they had offended me. I thought showing that I cared a fig what they thought would have been seen as a sign of weakness. “You’re pathetic. F -off,” was a more effective way of stopping their fun.
LIFE IS TOUGH
I know not all women feel capable of standing up to the sexist boss/star/man in more powerful position, but do they really have to wait years before they complain with a group of others who were in the same boat?
“Life is tough,” said one female TV executive, “Girls need to butch up or f-off if they want to work in this industry.”
And it isn’t all one-way traffic.
When I was student, I worked in the Rowntree Mackintosh chocolate factory packing Black Magic on a production line where everyone was female, from grannies to students. The factory floor reverberated to the songs of Tom Jones because music was a device used to help control productivity. The faster the music, the more chocolates we packed. But it didn’t matter if it was Tom Jones or the Bee Gees we sang along to, choccie-packing went into meltdown if a man dared to stray near our conveyor belt. Catcalls and lewd comments were shrieked across the shop floor mercilessly, supported by graphic gestures.
One poor lad in his early 20s was regularly humiliated and reduced to a white-faced, shifty-eyed wreck. How I pitied him, until I remembered he could comfort himself with his wage packet which was always much heavier than any woman’s despite only doing half the work . This was pre-equality days.
One of the biggest shocks I had later in life was moving from ITV to the BBC, where not only did people take themselves and their career paths very seriously indeed, but I found myself in a female dominated department for the first time.
WHO DO YOU FANCY?
“Right, you’ve been here six weeks. Who do you fancy?” the right-on feminists demanded as we lounged round the office drinking free wine to celebrate transmission of the first programme of the series (Isn’t that what we were there to do? Why celebrate?). There followed a long conversation debating which bloke in the building had the biggest penis, who was a crap dancer therefore must be dreadful in bed, and why all the sexy guys were gay? Yes, groups of women can be as crudely and ruthlessly sexist as men.
So sisters, don’t let’s get all holier than thou about sexual harassment. If women were in powerful positions, I have no doubt men would be locking themselves in the toilets feeling as aggrieved and victimised as many females do.
However, it isn’t that simple, is it?
My friend has just pointed out that I’m wrong not to support the female victims in the Rennard saga because women still, in general, have to work so much harder to gain any ground – which means be in control – and complaining about sexual harassment will always count against us in career progression.
The system that enabled Rennard to ‘get away with it’ for so long is culpable too, just as everyone in the media knew Savile was dodgy but no company did anything about it. TV executives all knew my Head of News was a notorious groper but it was treated as a bit of harmless fun. Discussing my bra was only a little test of my sense of humour. It didn’t occur to me to complain because then I would have been perceived as a pain in the neck who wasn’t tough enough to handle normal newsroom banter. Goodbye career.
The women in the Rennard affair say they complained but were ignored – that’s the real issue. I’ve had to eat my words. I, and countless others of my generation put up with it, survived, and even thought it was normal behaviour. But that doesn’t make it right and doesn’t mean that anyone else should have to tolerate it today.
PS. What happened to the female TV executive whose advice was “Butch up or f-off”? Funnily enough, she was sidelined for being a bully.