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In October 2017, allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein inspired millions of women around the world to use the #MeToo hashtag to draw attention to widespread sexual harassment and assault around the world.

In Britain, female politicians, staff members, and journalists opened up about their own experiences, provoking the resignation and party suspension of a number of male Cabinet ministers and Members of Parliament.

This is not the first time that women have come forward about sexual harassment in British politics. Distinct from previous occasions, however, both major party leaders responded and, on 30 October, MPs weighed in as well, with Harriet Harman posing an Urgent Question to House of Commons Leader, Andrea Leadsom, asking for a statement about her plan to tackle sexual harassment in Parliament.

The rapidly developing nature of this scandal raises a number of questions. First, how did this issue get on the political agenda? Second, what features of politics might foster harassment and discourage reporting? Third, what solutions might be pursued to tackle this problem? And, fourth, what does it mean for democracy?

A worldwide awakening?

Sexual harassment in the workplace has long existed, but sexual harassment in politics has only newly been recognised as a phenomenon. That sexual harassment occurs in politics, however, has long been known.

Over the last ten years, sexual harassment allegations have led a number of high-level political officials to lose their positions worldwide.

These include Mbulelo Goniwe, chief whip for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party in South Africa in 2006; Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews, Liberal MPs in Canada in 2014, followed by a third Liberal MP, Darshan Kang, in 2017; Silvan Shalom, interior minister of Israel in 2015; and Denis Baupin, vice president of the French National Assembly in 2016.

In the wake of #MeToo, attention to this issue has begun to accelerate globally. In the United States, the issue became salient in October 2017 when more than 140 women in California politics started the #WeSaidEnough campaign to denounce widespread sexual harassment against (and by) lawmakers, aides, and lobbyists.

Sexual harassment as a systemic problem in politics

Sexual harassment is not an expression of sexual desire, but is motivated by a craving for power and status. Hostility to women, or negative attitudes toward gender equality, determine a person’s likelihood to engage in – and/or tolerate – sexual harassment. Emphasis on status means that other forms of inequality – like age, race, and disability – can exacerbate these dynamics. Consequently, sexual harassment should be understood as a systemic, cultural issue rather than one reducible to the problematic behaviours of particular individuals.

Politics has long been viewed as a quintessentially masculine space, creating a context ripe for sex-based harassment. Additionally, the lack of robust policies means that targets are less apt to report incidents and have their allegations taken seriously, leading to few or no sanctions against perpetrators.

Several structural features of employment at Westminster encourage under-reporting and impunity: staff are directly employed by MPs, and political journalists rely heavily on MPs for information to enable them to do their jobs. Victims thus lack the types of protections that they would have in any other workplace.

Interventions against sexual harassment

Despite the few protections afforded to victims of sexual harassment in the political sphere, the representative nature of politics also means that it – more than any other arena – should be the focus of intervention. However, harassment does not only take place in Parliament, but also in local councils, inside parties, and online. A multifaceted response, therefore, is most appropriate.

At the parliamentary level, one message emerging clearly from the Urgent Question debate was the need for an independent body to receive and adjudicate claims. The existing parliamentary hotline offers quite a minimal infrastructure. An independent body, several MPs proposed, might include offering impartial legal advice.

A second suggestion, put forward by numerous MPs, involves provision of training on inappropriate behaviours. The new sexual harassment policy introduced in the Canadian parliament in 2014, for example, requires sexual harassment training for all MPs and staff.

Political parties also have an important role to play in the fight against sexual harassment. Although the Labour Party already instituted a Code of Conduct for MPs and party members prior to October 2017, women in the party continue to express concerns that the party’s ‘new’ sexual harassment procedures do not go far enough in terms of transparency and training. The ‘integrity commission’ set up by the ANC in South Africa might provide one alternative model; in 2016, it ruled in favour of the twenty-one-year old complainant against one of its powerful provincial chairmen.

At the civil society level, finally, various networks have mobilised to raise awareness and give voice to those who have been sexually harassed. Most directly, women have taken power into their own hands by setting up anonymous reporting mechanisms for elected women, female party members, and parliamentary staff. Like the #WeSaidEnough campaign in California, women in the Labour Party set up the #LabourToo website to collecti testimonies and lobby party leaders to take these issues more seriously.

Why ignoring sexual harassment harms democracy

Sexual harassment, in politics as in other domains, has long been viewed as the cost of women’s incursion into the public sphere. Violence and harassment against women in politics is not simply a question of equality, however. It also poses serious threats to democracy.

Sexual harassment, for example, can render female politicians and staffers less effective in their jobs, taking time and emotional energy away from substantive policy work. Staff attrition as a result of harassment, in turn, can affect the political pipeline, as many staffers later run for political office themselves.

Finally, sexual harassment can reduce political transparency and accountability to the extent that female journalists are prevented from reporting on important stories, either because they must avoid certain politicians or are refused information for failing to play along.

Ignoring sexual harassment in politics thus has serious, and deleterious, consequences: it reinforces gender inequality, fosters a hostile work environment, and degrades democratic institutions.

This article is adapted from a longer piece in the Political Quarterly journal.

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