ALISON O'CONNOR: There's little succour for women who’ve been harassed in the workplace

Alison O’Connor worries about the women who work in the background of Leinster House.

‘AH THE lunge,” said my friend laughing in recollection. We’re both married and settled ladies of a certain age now, but our discussion centred around the youthful female experience of the inebriated male suddenly making a drunken lunge and attempting to stick his tongue down your throat.

I had been recalling an office Christmas party of many years ago. I reminded her of a senior editorial executive telling me, during the course of casual conversation, that in his downtime he liked to imagine myself and another female colleague in bed together. As far as I could recall, and this was around 20 years ago, this was the same party where I shared a taxi home with a colleague — around 20 years older than me, married with children. I was getting out first and it was when I turned to say goodnight that this particular lunge occurred. As I type I’m doing that female thing of wondering why I shared the cab with him in the first place, but I’m also remembering the repulsion of the wet feel of his tongue in my mouth.

As the current controversy has been unfolding so too have the memories, none of which I have to say I felt at the time were particularly traumatic, or that I would have dreamt of doing anything about. It simply felt part of what you had to put up with. That included the colleague who asked some of us girls in the pub about our masturbation habits. Another friend was told at a Christmas party another year by a different senior executive: “You’ll go far because you have big tits.” I feel it only fair to point out that these sort of incidents involved a handful of men and the vast majority of male colleagues were respectful.

The friend I was chatting to over the phone recalled working in Leinster House and how it was far more the practice then to hang around the bar to try and get stories. We remembered how you had to put up with a certain amount of drunken manhandling, because if you made a fuss you were singling yourself out as not being one of the boys, which of course you weren’t because drunken TDs didn’t attempt to cop a feel of their breasts.

Another friend who worked in regional journalism recalled a senior, nationally known politician, inviting her to “take a spin” in his car when she was asking him awkward questions. “I remember him saying ‘You’ll enjoy it’ in a rather lewd tone”, she recalled.

There are legendary stories about one, now deceased, individual who would have young female freelancers sit on his knee to get their expenses signed. He once told another friend, apropos of nothing at all, that he was “very hygienic in my sexual practices” and on another occasion asked her to kiss him. When she responded that she had a sore throat he said: “I don’t mind anything I pick up from you.”

As I said, these stories are from years ago and we all agreed that it would never even have crossed your mind to complain officially. I now work mainly from home where the only company I have in the office is the dog. I like to imagine things have moved on, but I really don’t know. Not unlike the arts, the media is a precarious business to be in, with a massive number of freelancers, dependent on individual editors to keep giving them work.

Just as people have been saying that bad behaviour is excused in the arts world because of temperament and performance pressure, the same can be applied to the media world. There is also the overwhelmingly maleness of those occupying senior positions.

Leinster House has changed in the intervening period. There have been reports this week that there is nothing like the level of harassment, including rape allegations, that have been emerging from Westminster. This is true. But that is not to say it is not happening at all. Leinster House is far smaller in numbers— 158 TDs to 650 MPs with the attendant support staff, as well as media. The very fact that the numbers are smaller, and therefore the “bubble” smaller, makes for, I think, a measure of protection.

I also believe there is an element of wariness among Irish politicians of female journalists because in that instance the power does not entirely reside on one half of the relationship.

The women I wonder and worry about are those who work in the background in the overwhelmingly male dominated Leinster House. These women are working alongside men who are away from their families for days at a time in Dublin and through necessity keep late hours. As we know there are two bars in Leinster House which do a healthy business. So I take it with a pinch of salt when I see it said that there have been no official complaints or reports of sexual harassment.

In fact it you simply look at the law of averages this has to be a nonsense. Of course such events have occurred and they have either not been reported because of fear on behalf of the victim or because of a cover-up.

There are added complications if you were sexually assaulted/harassed by a TD, and you work for the party he represents. If are loyal to that party there is the extra pressure of realising that if you report his behaviour, and demand it be acted upon, that political party could end up in a possible byelection situation if the politician had to resign.

This is not to single out Leinster House because this is happening to an extent everywhere. But it is the seat of power in our country and as former Labour leader Eamon Gilmore once said it has such a predominantly male presence it is like a boys’ boarding school.

Fianna Fáil this week asked the Dáil to draw up a code of conduct that would apply to TDs. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said there should be “no tolerance” of assault or sexual harassment or bullying in any workplace. He has spoken to Arts Minister Heather Humphreys about allegations of sexual assault at the Gate Theatre, and towards the end of the week she announced a number of measures to tackle sexual harassment and abuse of power in the workplace in the arts and culture sector.

The minister did finally actually speak out on the issue yesterday, saying any culture of bullying or harassment needed to be stamped out.

Yadda, yadda, yadda — that’s my conclusion after observing the developments to date. It’s a week since Grace Dyas spoke out so bravely about Michael Colgan and the happenings at the Gate Theatre and encouraged other women to do similarly. She is still uncertain as to where she stands.

It is a marvellous thing that young women won’t put up with this sort of behaviour any longer. But right now there is little succour for them in what they’ve heard in terms of the practicalities of reporting and their own subsequent protection. As things stand, would you encourage a friend in the same position as those women in the Gate to come forward? I’m not sure I would.

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