Dear Aileen and Cleland
I am writing to you both in the form of an open letter on the topical issue of work place sexual harassment.
It is my belief, based on my own experiences and the experiences of others, that we as a Council have much work to do in this area and that the most appropriate way to address the challenges that we face in relation to this important issue, is to be as open and transparent as possible. With that in mind you will see that I have also copied in all of Argyll and Bute’s elected members, including our MSP and MP.
From the start I would like you both to know that I have not found this letter easy to compose. I have thought many times in recent months about writing it. I suppose, like many other women, I have felt that by raising this, my voice would perhaps be a lone one and that it may have drawn unwelcome attention to my own experiences of low level sexual harassment since being elected. This hasn’t been something that I have been comfortable in doing until now. However, over the last week or so, amid the media hype surrounding this issue, I like so many others have found strength from the courage and testimony of other women who have added their voices to the call for change.
This letter is not designed to be a witch-hunt or an exercise in pointing the finger at anyone. It’s a plea for some collective responsibility, in not just talking about bringing about a cultural shift at Argyll and Bute Council but actually making it happen.
Since joining the Council I have been incredibly disturbed, disappointed and often offended by the culture I find myself immersed in. A culture where some male elected members appear to think nothing of making inappropriate comments to me as a female Councillor and also to female members of staff. I can give many examples of the comments I have been subjected to; from being told by a male Councillor that he “finds me a distraction in the Council Chamber” to being called a “hot blonde” and being told that “I should be kept on a leash”. Whilst all at the lower end of the harassment spectrum these comments are offensive and the excuses for them are like nothing I’ve heard in any other workplace. It’s almost as though it’s accepted by some as an integral part of working in a political environment. I’ve also had it explained to me as a “generational thing” which whilst that may be true it doesn’t make it any less unacceptable. I find it horrifying that I have actually now reached a point where I fully expect sexually motivated comments from some male Councillors.
I’ve also witnessed inappropriate comments from male Councillors to female members of staff, either being made directly to them or in conversation with other male elected members after staff members have left a room. The comments are always based around how female members of staff are dressed, their physicality or their looks. This is totally unacceptable. Not only does it place staff in an impossible position but it also upsets, completely undermines and demoralises them. How do I know how female staff feel? I know because some of them have had the courage to speak to me in confidence about it. They have also told me about incidents of inappropriate touching by male Councillors and that many staff are fearful of speaking out for all the usual reasons woman don’t come forward, but also worryingly because there is a perception within the Council that elected members can do what they want with no repercussions.
In a modern and forward thinking Argyll and Bute Council this unhealthy culture and disturbing perception simply must change.
Whilst I feel like I’m just skirting the tip of the iceberg with this, it has prompted me to have a look for our policies on workplace harassment and in particular sexual harassment. It concerns me greatly that I cannot find policy or procedure for taking forward a complaint. Whilst it may well exist, it should be easy for anyone to find. It should also be given to and clearly explained to all members of staff and importantly to elected members as soon as they join the Council. Something else that I’ve come across in my research is that it appears that as current policy stands a Councillor involved in an inappropriate relationship with a staff member would not face reprisals, whilst a staff member would be disciplined and possibly face dismissal. The power imbalance in this just doesn’t sit right with me.
I’m well aware that this all makes for very uncomfortable reading for many people and for that I do not apologise. The time has come for us to put formal, robust and structured policy in place to address this issue. Sweeping it under the carpet or worst still being accepting of it is no longer an option. Women at Argyll and Bute Council deserve to be treated with dignity and total respect. Staff and Councillors require a safe, confidential environment in order to speak out on these issues without fear of reprisal.
So I’m appealing to both of you to take the lead in ensuring that my plea is not ignored. I offer to assist you in any way that I can and I’d hope that many of our colleagues will support me in doing likewise.
SNP Councillor – Oban North and Lorn