Aoife Moore: Sexual harassment survey paints bleak picture of culture of silence

Anyone who is harassed — male or female — must feel safe to come forward, and that they will be believed and listened to
Aoife Moore: Sexual harassment survey paints bleak picture of culture of silence

There are protocols in the Houses of the Oireachtas to deal with bullying and harassment, but official protocols alone are not enough. Picture: Laura Hutton/RollingNews.ie

The stark findings of the Irish Examiner's most recent sexual harassment survey paint a bleak picture of how society sees women.

As was the case with the female TDs surveyed last week, many of the senators who wrote anonymously to reveal that they had been sexually harassed or denigrated were not willing to speak publicly about their experiences.

A culture of silence, turning a blind eye, and power structures with men in the majority — all only serve to protect harassers. With how society views those who come forward, it is all enough to put anyone off speaking out.

There are protocols in the Houses of the Oireachtas to deal with bullying and harassment, but official protocols alone are not enough. 

Anyone who is harassed — male or female — must feel safe to come forward, and that they will be believed and listened to. 

The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Dignity and Respect Statement of Principles and Policy saw parties and staff unanimously agree to "adopt common standards to ensure that all those working in the Houses of the Oireachtas are treated with dignity and respect", where employers in the Houses have obligations to take reasonable steps to ensure that the work environment is free of bullying, harassment, or sexual harassment and to deal with established complaints of bullying in the workplace.

What we have heard from senators and TDs is that although these protocols may be in place, many do not feel safe or comfortable to use them.

Another issue is a misconception of what sexual harassment is and how this lends itself to sustained self-doubt and victims blaming themselves. Sexual harassment is defined as: "Uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behaviour of a sexual nature, especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate." 

This can run the gamut from making conditions of employment or advancement dependent on sexual favours, either explicitly or implicitly; comments on appearance; unwanted sexually explicit photos, emails, or text messages; to physical acts of sexual assault.

Studies and statistics about sexual harassment in the State are hard to come by. The Women's Council of Ireland says this is because Ireland has not taken the issue seriously.

Research suggests that for victims of sexual harassment, the most common diagnoses are depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

A paper published in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health found that sexual harassment early in someone's career can cause long-term depressive symptoms, while physical symptoms can materialise as muscle aches, headaches, and high blood pressure.

There was much outrage and concern when the initial survey findings were published in this paper, but until everyone sees themselves as a part of the solution to ending this behaviour, no great strides will be made.

It is not enough for each of us to treat others with respect in the workplace, we must actively call out bad behaviour when we see it — to empower victims to come forward, and to refuse to turn a blind eye when we feel our colleagues or friends are being made to feel uncomfortable.

The culture of turning the other cheek and keeping your head down only serves to keep victims quiet and perpetrators in positions of power.

Ireland has a notable track record of keeping quiet when wrong is being done, and we cannot say we did not know — because the women in the Oireachtas have told us.

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