Monday, April 15, 2013

Office groping

Man grabbing a woman's arm at the watercooler

Office groping is back in the headlines. 

But it's a difficult subject to talk about and even define.

A hand on a colleague's shoulder, perhaps a squeeze of the arm, a pat on the head.

A brush of the hand over the waist. 

A pat on the bottom.

There's a spectrum here, most people would probably admit.

At one end you have physical contact that could be construed as a sympathetic gesture.

But repeat the gesture over the course of dozens of working days, in particular contexts, and it's something that could easily be seen as a creepy invasion of personal space.

Deliberately touching a colleague's bottom carries no such ambiguity though. 

In a British or American workplace it's likely to trigger an investigation and could lead to dismissal.

How victims should respond to groping, how organisations should investigate allegations and even what constitutes groping is all open to debate.

Groping is something serious and overtly sexual whereas there is a wider, and less serious sounding, category dubbed "inappropriate contact" or even just "inappropriate behaviour".

The semantics are important as they help define the debate.

There can be serious non-physical sexual harassment. 

And for many people, there is innocent touching that cannot be construed as sexual harassment.

To further complicate, there is touching that is sexual harassment but in the eyes of some still does not deserve to be termed "groping".

Addressing the issue can be intensely complicated.

The allegations against Lord Rennard have prompted the Lib Dems to launch two inquiries. 

The Metropolitan Police is investigating whether criminal acts took place. 

Lord Rennard, who stepped down as chief executive of the party in 2009, has said the claims are a "total distortion" of his character.

Typing pool in 1970Offices in the 1960s and 1970s had a different climate
In October, the BBC appointed Dinah Rose QC to help with a review of how it handled sexual harassment.

The Rennard case has again prompted a flurry of debate.

Once upon a time, fending off groping was almost part of the job for women. 

Mad Men-style sexism was de rigueur in 1960s offices, says the Independent newspaper's agony aunt Virginia Ironside.

You were groped uphill and down dale and nobody cared. 

They'd be twanging your suspender belt as you leant over the waste paper basket."

Things are supposed to have changed. 

Today the "cheeky" pat on the bottom is considered harassment. 

Firms have zero tolerance bullying strategies and policies to encourage whistle blowers.

It's hard to measure the scale of the problem. 

There's a dearth of reliable stats, prompted at least in part by chronic under reporting.

Scarlet Harris, women's equality officer at the Trades Union Congress, says groping is still a "massive problem". 

It's likely to be underreported as many women decide to "deal with it" rather than report it, she says. 

It's a terrible state of affairs if a woman feels she has to ignore it.

And it's a problem that affects many men of course, inappropriately touched by both women and men. 

The typical case is perceived as being a woman being touched by a man, but increasing numbers of female managers have created plenty of evidence of the reverse.

In all cases, if it's a more senior person doing the groping, then the employee is placed in dangerous situation, dangerous often that is for his job and promotion.

Tom de Castella

No comments: