I’m sure even the most reclusive hermit is aware of the allegations of sexual abuse and harassment sweeping through the world of UK politics and the film industry at the moment. Big names such as Harvey Weinstein, Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Spacey in Hollywood, and Michael Fallon in Westminster have had some serious allegations flying in their direction. The #MeToo campaign has given a voice to victims of abuse who previous felt unable to speak about their experiences, and like ma
ny a viral meme the number of accused and victims has spiralled. It hasn’t just been women who have been coming out, men too have revealed unpleasant experiences at the hands of men (and so far it has only been men) in positions of power.
The film and entertainment industries and government are two areas of work full of people who wield tremendous power, desire fame and wealth, and have massive egos. Consequently, it attracts people who would do anything to get into these careers, no matter how compromising it might be. It is hardly a coincidence that that these fields take advantage of unpaid internships to feed a steady stream of impressionable young wannabes who lack any power in their destiny. So it must of little surprise that those higher up are emboldened to treat younger aspirants like playthings and take advantage of them. Of course, looks also play a big part in Hollywood (but very much less so in government), so add a sprinkling of glamour and you’ll be sprinkling hormones all over the working environment to spice up the mix even more.
One problem with these particular work areas is that they aren’t exactly a meritocracy. You don’t reach the top purely based on talent and hard work. In politics, it’s who you know, and of course being able to bullshit to a level that would make a second-hand car dealer blush. It’s little wonder politics is dominated by the privately educated, where the old boys (and girls) network operates and self-confidence – or maybe even self-delusion – is in-grained. The entertainment industry is also dominated by the well connected these days, but good looks and the right accent get you a long way too. Any industry where success is dependent on factors beyond the basic talent and skills at the job will encourage dubious techniques to become successful, and abuse will be natural side-effect of this. They are also very stratified work environments, where those at the very top earn great wealth, and have power and fame; but there are many levels below, way down to the bottom with people working for next to nothing with little hope of ever getting up the very long greasy pole. Those at the top know they can get away with liberties when dealing with those below them, as those below don’t want to ruin their chances of scaling the pole.
In my world of engineering, certainly from my experience, things could not be more different. To get ahead in engineering, you do need skill and talent, and it is far more of a meritocracy. That’s not to say luck, good connections and some brown-nosing doesn’t help get you ahead. But you certainly won’t get ahead on good looks and a nice accent alone! Even in older, larger companies with traditional structures, there is less of a distance between the top level engineers and the new starters. Even the most experienced engineers will know that a young new starter will have skills they don’t. So there’s a far smaller disparity of power and potential for abuse compared with politics and entertainment. We all know engineering is a male-dominated industry, but I’ve always felt most male engineers aren’t usually the macho, alpha-male types who need constantly prove their masculinity. They tend to be rather reserved and hide their sexuality under a bushel. I’ve known a fair number of gay engineers, and you would have needed a well-tuned gaydar to have been able to spot them. I suspect a fair few of my colleagues having even fallen into the much ignored asexual category. While I can’t speak for my female colleagues, I’ve never had one mention any sort of sexual abuse or harassment in the workplace. The worst they’ve ever mentioned are some simplistic stereotypes, but nothing ever lewd or nasty. Of course, I’m not going to be told of every single incident from all my female colleagues, but I’ve always got the impression they consider it a safe industry. Many other organisations have different cultures from the ones I’ve worked for, which may paint a different picture. But if you’re a woman looking for a career where sexual harassment is unlikely to be a problem, then engineering (and science in general) is a good one to choose. I also like to think that the typical engineer or scientist is highly intelligent and thus well behaved!
I decided to do a little background research on some of the politicians accused of inappropriate behaviour, and there was a list of ten names doing the rounds (it would have been useful to have more). I decided to look up their educational background to see whether it aligned with my suspicion that they were privately educated. Of the ten, four were privately educated, three went to grammar school, two state and one unknown. Also six of those (I think, but can’t be sure) were also boys-only schools. Now, that last figure does start to make you think, does a single-sex education distort boys views of girls?
I know those who support single-sex education like to highlight that the educational achievement is better (though I am sceptical of that claim, due the selective nature of single-sex schools), but at what cost to social skills of the pupils? If you’re in an all-boys school, you never get to see girls as equals, doing the same things as you. They become even more mysterious and treated as different beings. The result can go in two directions, one is that you become scared and in awe of girls, and the other is that you see girls as inferior or to be taken advantage of. I’m not saying all boys at single-sex schools end up at either of these extremes, but it surely must magnify any differences. When I was at university I knew a few students who went to single-sex schools (both boys and girls), and they all seemed to view the opposite sex with a certain amount novelty, and not just treat them as just another student to be an equal friend with. Many soon adjusted, but the male students who were getting all excited over being in close proximity to women were usually from all-boys schools.
Going back to our politicians’ schools, where more than half either went to a private (called public schools in the UK, rather confusingly) or grammar (free, but selective) schools. While private schools can offer an excellent level of education, they also seem to instil a level of self-confidence into most of the pupils. Of course, many of them come from privileged backgrounds, which also helps this level of self-confidence. But this self-confidence, if not restrained, can turn into arrogance and entitlement.
A Power Trip?
I’ve read many articles which postulate that the sexual abuse cases are men exerting their power over the women, and they are using sex to put them in their place. I’m not so sure about this, as there are many ways to exert power without using sex, so why do it that way with the inherent risks it carries? As I just mentioned in the educational upbringing, I see it more of a sense of entitlement, rather than exerting power. These men feel entitled to treat women (and men) as they want, and feel immune to any possible repercussions, as they’ve grown up without anyone challenging them, or questioning their actions.
I also think the fundamental aspect of sexual desire is overlooked in many articles too. We’re sexual beings, and if we see someone we find attractive, we’ll have sexual feelings towards them. Of course, the vast majority of us keep such thoughts to ourselves and not make those feeling felt. These over-entitled men appear not to have the restraint, or empathy towards the other person and therefore externalise their inner thoughts, and act on their basest instincts. Because of their lofty positions, they get away with their behaviour and this results in a power trip. So I think power is more a result of their behaviour, not really the cause.
One really glaring omission from all these reports of abuse is any mention of the police getting involved, or any of the alleged victims reporting any incidents to the law. Some of the incidents appear to be very serious, including rape, so why aren’t the police involved? I know the police have a lamentable track-record when handling rape and abuse cases, and it is notoriously difficult to convict; but you would have thought amongst all these allegations a few would have been reported? Is it really easier to reveal the abuse you’ve received to millions on social media on the back of a campaign, rather than report it in confidence to the police? While I generally believe the allegations that have been made, it does make your wonder whether some are jumping on the bandwagon and taking advantage for a moment of fame. The result is those who have genuinely been abused may not get taken seriously. I wonder whether some of these high profile figures accused of rape and other abuse will get convicted, or slip through the net due to their status and access to the top lawyers?
Too Much Variety?
The #MeToo campaign has revealed hundreds, if not thousands, of allegations of abuse and harassment, revealing how widespread the problems are. Many of these particular allegations have made the headlines due to the profile of the person making them. However, the nature of the the allegations vary from violent rape down to a tap on the knee or a risqué comment. While these latter incidents may have caused distress at that time, they can end up drowning out more serious cases because of the profile of the people involved. The trouble with internet memes is that everyone wants a piece of the action, and you end up with people coming up the most trivial incidents imaginable being giving the same exposure as criminal and life-changing events. I’m not saying harassment should be swept under the carpet, but maybe dealing with the perpetrator or the organisation it happened in more directly, rather than just Tweeting about it would be more useful.
Who is Doing This?
If you look at all the articles and social media on this subject you may get this impression it is all men, and only men, doing this. Of course, many articles will state otherwise. The Kevin Spacey reports have also revealed it isn’t just women who are victims too. From my personal experience I have received low-ish level sexual abuse and harassment from women, but not men (I don’t count getting wolf-whistled by some gay guys as harassment, and was rather flattered by it as it was done in good humour). I also personally don’t know any men who have sexually abused or harrassed anyone, but that’s maybe due to the sort of people I mix with. I think there’s a very small minority of people who do abuse and harrass, but they do it a lot and to lots of people. So maybe instead of being hung up about a widespread culture of abuse, maybe really trying to deal with the abusers will remove the majority of the problems. It’s rather like when the police catch a burglar (yes, I know that’s a bit of a far-fetched idea), and the number of burglaries plummets in the area. The hundreds of break-in weren’t done by hundreds of burglars, but one burglar doing hundreds of burglaries.
Move the Line?
The last decade or so has one of most puritanical periods since the 1950s. Compared to the late 1960s to 1980s, our attitudes to sex have become more prudish. This may be due to a reaction against that more sexually libarated era, which many people enjoyed the benefits of, but also many people (and particularly women) felt threatened by. These days even the sightest hint of flirtation between people who aren’t already in a relationship seems to be frowned upon, and could lead to serious trouble in the workplace. The only way we seem to be able to meet anyone these days is via online dating, and any real-life approaches are now virtually impossible it seems. Has the line been placed to what is and isn’t acceptable too far over to the converstive (very much with a small C!) side now? Are the rules so constraining now, so when someone breaks them, they go to the other extreme and end up abusing as many people as they can?
Maybe if we loosened up a bit, and tolerated a little bit of flirting now and again, and allowed people to be adults on a equal footing, it might prevent some people going off on these extreme pathways to abusive behaviour. It may also allow people to feel more comfortable about answering back confidently without offending when they aren’t interested. Do you think the current zero tolerance attitude is counter-productive, or would a more relaxed attitude be too risky?