Celebrating International Women’s Day is great, but women must feel safe at work

Brands celebrating International Women’s Day should be applauded, but until they address the gender issues closer to home they are just paying lip service to the problem.

Harrassment at workI love International Women’s Day (IWD). The women in my family send each other cards to celebrate it and talk about the work of female heroes like Rosa Parks, Miriam Makeba, Marie Curie and Toni Morrison. No wonder the campaign for gender equality is so important to me.

I am delighted that IWD is now also celebrated beyond the Joseph household, but (of course there was going to be a but) it really annoys me that so many brands are using it as just another date in the calendar to sell us stuff.

Yes, last year there were some really powerful interventions from brands that had clearly thought about how they could meaningfully contribute to empowering women. I loved the Mars Galaxy project to build a women’s market in Cote d’Ivoire and Coco de Mer’s campaign to highlight female genital mutilation.

But there were far more frankly dreadful ones – the restaurants offering ‘ladies’ night’ specials, or the launch of pink pens, gadgets and T-shirts specially for the ladies. Yuck, yuck, yuck.

I would far rather brands and agencies focused on the gender issues closer to home; that is to say, in their own businesses. I give lots of advice to businesses about how to recruit, retain and promote women; how to create inclusive and equitable cultures in which women and men feel valued and supported in their careers. That support needs to include protecting them from sexual harassment.

A friend of mine used to work in an agency where, on Valentine’s Day, there was real pressure on the junior staff to sit in reception and ‘sell’ kisses to any colleagues and clients who put money in a collection tin. “Don’t be a prude, it’s for a good cause,” they were told. With the financial year fast drawing to a close and bonuses about to be calculated, there was a definitive implication that getting stuck in would be a seen as a good example of being a team player.

It was a long time ago, but even then my friend and I knew it was wrong. Very wrong. She didn’t feel she could complain, so she started looking for another job and ended up retraining as a teacher.

We need to create a working environment in which people know how to behave and where there is a zero tolerance of sexual harassment.

Another great person lost from the sector. Another great woman to turn her back on marketing. I am not sure if the agency is still like that, but I am suspicious and I would never want to have anything to do with the senior people in the organisation on whose watch this happened. Most have retired, but there are still one or two knocking around.

I had hoped this was a thing of the past – different times, as they say – but alarmingly significant numbers of people are still experiencing sexual harassment.

According the timeTo campaign, 26% of people surveyed (including 34% of women) had been sexually harassed while working in the advertising and marketing industry, and the great majority of those (72%) had been harassed more than once.

Around 20% of female respondents aged 18 to 24 have already been sexually harassed in the industry – not back in the bad old days, but now. These numbers are likely to underestimate the reality. I know from talking to colleagues that many are confused about what is sexual harassment.

“He touched my boob. I didn’t like it, I didn’t want him to, but it isn’t as if he raped me,” a young woman once said when I encouraged her to report an older colleague.

There is also a strong feeling that the perpetrators tend to get away with it and that, if you report it, you will be the one who gets moved on. It is hard to refute. I am aware of a number of women who left their jobs suddenly and with no official explanation, presumably with an NDA in place.

TimeTo’s new campaign encourages witnesses to sexual harassment to take action

I saw a stat from CNBC on Twitter recently that said 21% of men were afraid to hire women after #MeToo. It struck me as an odd response to the problem – punishing victims/potential victims by removing them from the workplace rather than dealing with the actual problem. If you were going address the issue through not hiring a group of people, surely the logical response would be to exclude those likely to commit the offence rather than their victims?

To be clear I think that too is a terrible idea. We need to create a working environment in which people know how to behave and where there is a zero tolerance of sexual harassment. This shouldn’t be that hard. I really don’t think I am asking for the earth.

It should certainly be easier to tackle than some of the other big issues I write about for Marketing Week on a regular basis. Your first point of call should be the excellent timeTo code of conduct, which sets out very clearly what you can do as an employer, individual and colleague to make the working environment a better place for everyone.