Remember the Presidents Club scandal? It was a year ago this month when a female undercover reporter lifted the lid on something you might have hoped had died out years ago; a men-only dining club for rich businessmen, at whose annual charity dinner waitresses were grabbed and groped, flashed and propositioned as if the whole #MeToo movement had never happened.
For a few weeks, the outrage was such that the Presidents Club had to shut down, and there were calls for something to be done. Groping guests aside, why weren’t the company who hired the waitresses (and made them sign non-disclosure agreements, which suggests they may have had at least some inkling of what might be coming) held responsible for putting young women into this free-for-all? But nothing was done, particularly. The world moved onto the next scandal.
Well, it’s time to move back again. This week the parliamentary All Party Group on Sex Equality launches a campaign to reinstate Section 40, a snippet of employment law which would have put a duty on bosses to tackle so-called third party harassment at work (that’s the kind perpetrated not by your own colleagues but by customers, clients or anyone outside the company you have to deal with in the course of your job). The group’s co-chair Labour MP Jess Phillips has been busy collecting anonymous harassment stories via the website Notthejob.com in order to understand better where the biggest problems lie. But the idea is that the law could protect everyone from waitresses and barmaids to teachers harassed by teenage boys in class and bankers entertaining clients.
All bosses would have to do what the good ones already do quite naturally, which is take women seriously when they complain
If you’re wondering why this isn’t already the law, it was once – the Section 40 protections were originally drawn up as part of the then-Labour-minister Harriet Harman’s 2010 Equality Act but ditched three years ago when David Cameron’s government declared them not “fit for purpose”. But now that even Carolyn Fairbairn, chief executive of the CBI, which represents employers, has called for their reinstatement it’s hard to see what the objection could be.
Changing the law in this way wouldn’t put employers in the impossible position of being expected to prevent all instances of sexual harassment. There’s no way even the best boss can be held responsible for the actions of every random passing man.
But it would mean employers could be held liable for instances of sexual harassment where someone had already suffered two previous incidents and the company hadn’t taken reasonable steps to prevent it happening again. Translation: all bosses would have to do what the good ones already do quite naturally, which is take women seriously when they complain about that creepy guy who keeps pestering them and make an effort to protect them. Crucially in industries where young female staff are still cynically used to attract male customers, it could help ensure they aren’t dangled like bait in front of predatory men and then told (when the inevitable happens) that it’s all part of the job.
And yes, that means some employers might end up having to have some embarrassing conversations with some of their creepier customers about what’s appropriate. But since sexual harassment generally involves an abuse of power – since when did anybody try to pinch the bum of someone senior to them? – it’s only going to stop when those at the top of corporate food chains become involved in tackling it. Bringing back Section 40 would be a relatively quick, simple way of sharing a burden that for too long women have carried on their own and a tangible sign that lessons have been learned since the Presidents Club exposé. We’ve waited long enough.