If a relationship at work ends, the more junior person usually pays with their career. That has to stop.

A man starts rubbing a young female journalist’s leg at a cafe. She is 29. He is older and a senior staffer for a politician.

The young woman thinks two things at once: “I’m not attracted to you”. And: “If I piss you off, I won’t get the interview I want with your minister”. The young woman smiles ambiguously, gently removes his hand and tries to keep the conversation on track.

She definitely doesn’t want to have sex with him. But she doesn’t tell him not to touch her like that.

It’s a dance that is played out constantly in workplaces. Particularly in hothouse workplaces like Parliament House. I know because I worked there in the press gallery in the early 90s. And I was that young woman.

Last year’s Four Corners program about the sexualised culture in the world of Canberra politics took me right back to those days and had me taking a long hard look at myself in the rear-view mirror.

Why did I – a feminist – put up with constantly being hit on as if it was part of my job? Because I cared about my career. I was driven. I had my whole future in front of me. Like many young women I convinced myself that the sexualised remarks and the straying of hands were something I just had to handle.

Journalism and politics all breed cultures where people work hard and play hard. They are not 9 to 5 environments. Deadline-driven, competitive and frequently adversarial, they are professions that swiftly cull people who can’t handle pressure or who are easily offended.

For young women working in these environments it is often very difficult to know where the lines are between working and socialising, between flirtation and harassment.

These days I work with organisations on tackling sexual harassment and bullying in their cultures. And the first thing I say to people I conduct workshops with is that legal definitions of these behaviours can only take us so far.

The reality of many workplaces, particularly highly competitive ones, is that people spend a lot of time at work. They identify with their jobs and their colleagues. They flirt. They have affairs. And sometimes they meet their life partners.

Without acknowledging this reality, and the grey areas in relationships we all live with, it’s impossible to talk meaningfully about what genuine harassment and abuse of power looks like.

The question of when the power imbalance in a relationship negates consent is not simple to answer. There are, of course, professions where the codes of conduct explicitly prohibit forming intimate relationships with someone in your care – medicine and education are obvious examples.

But does line-managing someone always mean that the power imbalance negates consent? And how do we calibrate the degrees of power? When does someone’s authority over someone else make a consensual relationship impossible?

These are not easy questions to answer. And perhaps the solution lies in how we manage the reality that people who work closely together will occasionally become more than colleagues, not on pretending we can police it in the first place.

The problem for junior colleagues who go into consensual sexual relationships with their supervisors is that, if those relationships break down, it is almost always the junior person who has to leave the workplace. And that’s exactly what the strong, gutsy women who spoke out about their experience as staffers to Canberra politicians said.

The problem for them was that they were the ones who were left with the fallout from the relationships. They paid the price with their careers. And that is outrageous and sexist, and that’s what has to stop.

A simple way of fixing things is to institute a policy in our workplaces, including our parliaments, which mandates that if you are having a relationship with someone you supervise, you have a duty of disclosure if you are the senior colleague. You don’t have to broadcast it to the world. You simply have to tell an appointed person and recuse yourself from supervision and decision-making concerning the person you are involved with.

That would set the bar a lot higher for anyone senior thinking of embarking on a fling with a junior colleague. That would give the junior colleague, usually a woman, evidence if her career later suffered.

And we need to induce serious reforms to make our workplaces more gender and culturally diverse so that it isn’t largely white men making decisions and quietly cleaning up the messes their mates leave behind them.

Sexual harassment and all forms of bullying remain huge issues in our workplaces, across the board. We need to tackle them. We need to keep conversations open. And we need to talk about power and how we stop enabling people who abuse their power.

But we also need to recognise that being human is a messy business. And that most of us bring our whole selves to work.
Nov 2020
Image credit: Aditya Joshi on Unsplash

Published by The Guardian.