Reports in the UK media this month have highlighted inappropriate behaviour towards employees of the Houses of Parliament, Parliamentary researchers, and MPs.

They range from low-level actions (compulsory jocularity, lookism, and unsolicited texts for dates) to the harassing behaviour of MPs towards committee staff, within the House of Commons and on overseas visits, to physical contact such as rummages at bars. The Leader of the House answered an Urgent Question on October 30, and the party leaderships held a “summit” a week later.

Sexual harassment inside Parliament has a longer genealogy than the episodes in the news, which gives pause to proclamations of “crisis” or a “tipping point”. A survey conducted by Channel 4 News in 2014 reported high levels of sexual harassment and raised questions about this as a solely “woman’s issue” since, with a third of men and women researchers experiencing sexual harassment, the former were more numerous.

My doctoral research, through a workplace ethnographic lens, examined the everyday performance of gender beneath ceremonial displays of power in the House of Commons. It found sexualisation is a significant component of gender relations within Parliament, documenting the continuums of violence that have now come to light.

Given the gravity of the situation at Westminster, how can change occur and what might that change look like?

Changes to Gender Regimes

1. Codes of Conduct, Training and Procedures

The Nolan Principles of public life (selflessness, integrity, leadership, objectivity, accountability, openness and honesty) have been long established for MPs, but they rarely bring reflection. A pattern in my research was that an “all hands on deck” arrangement of time in parliamentary offices means there is less time to consider ethics.

Compulsory management training has been suggested, though Caroline Lucas MP suggested that this should be more encompassing. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Hudson, made “strong representations” that the Respect Policy — lapsed for House Staff and reintroduced in July 2014 — should include other parliamentary actors, though Parliament may also introduce a separate sexual harassment policy in addition to the Respect Policy. For the House Service, there could be greater institutional recognition that they are stewards of Parliament rather than servants of MPs. At the summit on November 6, the party leaders agreed an independent grievance procedure.

The challenge with codes, training, and procedures, as with the hotline for parliamentary researchers, is that policies can represent the end of institutional responsibilities rather than the beginning, leaving the burden to individuals to make use of them. Obstacles to reporting should be addressed, including a notion of meritocracy in which complainants may not want to damage someone’s career.

The dissemination, reflection, uptake, and rolling evaluation of these codes and procedures is important. They should be designed as a participatory and discursive process and arguably staff-led beyond the party leaders, given the trauma to individuals of harassment.

2. Personnel Changes

Parties should apply sanctions consistently: as Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in the Scottish Parliament suggested, we need to “clear the stables” with a “big shovel”. However, debates on recalling members should come with caution because women MPs may possibly be more vulnerable to deselection attempts in local parties and could be disproportionately affected. Furthermore, attention to personnel change in and of itself may feed the Westminster obsession with runners and riders.

There are broader temporalities to injury such as experiencing a wilful ignorance of harassment by political leaders and party whips. Micro-affirmations of those who have buried or even committed wrongdoing such as promotions can be disempowering of victims and show a lack of recognition of pain. A menu of sanctions and disclosure checks on constituency staff, proposed by some MPs, could be important, but will abuses of power survive these actors?

3. Institutionalising Key Actors Outside of Parties

MPs may struggle to provide pastoral care and training as employers because they do not have the time to build these relationships. Therefore institutionalising key actors is important, such as the creation of the Women and Equalities Select Committee in 2015.

At the moment, complainants can go to the media for justice, which is unsatisfactory for both the victim and accused. Instead, an apparatus should be outside parties and confidential, involving sexual violence experts. The setting up of a Human Resources Department would be a good start, as would the formal employment of researchers by Parliament.

A personnel advisory service may sit in on interviews when MPs recruit staff, but it is not a compulsory service. The UNITE union’s Parliamentary branch should receive institutional recognition. ParliaGender, the workplace equality network for gender (in)equality, could be given a stronger role in making representations to the House and could use “soft” methodologies at Westminster in addition to codes and procedures such as focus groups and interviews, which have already been conducted successfully. However, the Workplace Equality Networks must be properly resourced.

4. Structural Questions of Institutional Power

A systemic problem can go beyond sexual harassment. It may beentangled in (in)direct structures of power and hierarchy with differences in pay, availability of alcohol, stratification, seniority, long hours, differences in contacts and networks, and demands on time. This can produce mistake anxiety, bullying, one-upmanship, racism, and poor communication.

A wider solution would be that local government, matched by funding, is an equally-esteemed route for a job in politics and can address the concentration of power at Westminster. However, this arena-shifting is not exempt from problems of sexual harassment.

Changing Language in Parliament

1. Reconceptualising power

Focusing on structures of power may not address peer harassment from juniors that occurs “out of earshot” of formal supervisory relationships. Examples include a male researcher reporting horseplay from another researcher, the male researchers auditing female MPs sexually in a “chocolate bar” rating system, peer harassment for MPs, or a member of the House Service outing a male parliamentary researcher in front of an office intern. We may still be left with misogyny, homophobia, dominance, and hegemonic masculinity, even when structures are changed to be more equal.

2. Loss of Context

Context is particularly important for Parliament if behaviour falls below our expectations of a workplace, in this case one that legislates on rules for others. Sentiments from participants when discussing gender inequality within this context included feeling thunderstruck and incredulous, fury, a zooming out of workplace interactions, and description of institutional arrangements as “crazy”, “weird” and “ridiculous”.

3. Discursive Change on Sexual Harassment as a Knowledge

The term “sexual harassment” is being contested beyond its formalistic legalistic usage that sets a criminal threshold. When Parliament is referred to as an “organism, not an organisation”, sexual harassment, as a workplace discourse, has arguably not been put on its proper footing in this institutional arena.

“Man up” narratives are unhelpful. We cannot schedule our reactions to sexual harassment. Some people are immobilized by sexual harassment; for others, the effect comes later; some are not overwhelmed.

Sexual harassment has been described in discourses of high jinks, bants, “sex pests”, and “Pestminster”. This discourse ignores the responsibility and agency of perpetrators. It does not capture what is going on institutionally.

Approaching Policy

The Trades Union Congress found that 52% of women and 63% of 18- to 24-year-old women had experienced sexual harassment. Whilst sexual harassment is illegal under the Equality Act 2010, third party harassment was removed from the Equalities Act in 2013, making employees more vulnerable at work. The Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, Rt Hon Maria Miller MP highlighted in Parliament that 2/3 of girls in schools had experienced sexual harassment.

What policies can be adopted to deal with this?

In addition to a menu of priorities for government, End Violence Against Women have recommended the introduction of public campaigns for perpetrators and bystanders and have noted the racialized effect of sexual harassment on Black, Asian, and minority ethnic women. Domestic violence charities and Rape Crisis Centres should receive more funding.
We need an approach that is redistributive towards those services, in addition to ensuring public consciousness of sexual harassment as a reality for many men and women.