'An epidemic': Women's Equality Party leader on harassment

  1. 'The idea a popular or powerful man could be an abuser is greeted with denial'
  2. 'There's a total blindness in parliament to women's inequality'
  3. 'Violence against women and girls happens every day'

Sophie Walker is the leader of the United Kingdom’s political party that is pushing for gender equality. Before the 2015 election, her Women’s Equality Party (WEP) handed copies of its manifesto to other major parties and urged them to steal policies from it. She spoke to WikiTribune about unfolding allegations of sexual harassment involving UK politicians.

Last year, the WEP’s “We Count” campaign asked women all over the UK to write down the postcode of where their sexual harassment, assault or abuse had taken place. According to Walker, many of them wrote down “SW1A 0AA” – the postcode of the Palace of Westminster, where Britain’s Houses of Parliament reside.

During her time as the leader of the party – which launched just before the 2015 general election– Walker has been vocal about sexual harassment and gender-based violence. The former journalist has become even more forthright amid the global avalanche of sexual-misconduct allegations sparked by revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

Q: What was your initial reaction to the surge of allegations about sexual harassment in industries from Hollywood to politics?

A: I wasn’t remotely surprised, for a number of reasons … It is an epidemic. We saw it through media, entertainment, and now through politics. The fact that Westminster has been shaken by this as well is not a surprise. It simply shows how deep-rooted this abuse of power is. It is showing a lack of power between men and women. What’s interesting in it coming through in media, entertainment and politics is those areas in particular are very powerful in terms of output in maintaining power imbalance.

The media objectifies and sexualizes women. The entertainment industries dismiss our stories as being secondary to our stories of men. In the political system, men outnumber women by two to one so the legislation they make does not reflect the lives and needs of women.

Q: There have been newspaper covers presenting stories containing allegations of sexual assault next to pictures of women in bikinis. Is there an uncomfortable juxtaposition like that in Westminster?

A: What we’ve seen is the uncomfortable juxtaposition of lots of men in power and lots of young women who don’t occupy positions of authority and either feel unable to challenge that authority, or are specifically told when they do that they shouldn’t.

Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party (WikiTribune/Francis Augusto)

The narrative that’s come out of this series of stories … it is a scandal, it is a national scandal, but the way it has been reported as “sex pests” and “sleaze,” the language around it is limiting to say the least.

What this is about is a reflection of the inequalities being produced by the legislation and lack of legislation coming through Westminster and the classic deflection tactics used over the last couple of weeks.

We have a centuries-old tradition of dismissing women who bring these kinds of claims as “hysterical” or “insane” or as seeking personal gain in some way. The idea that a popular, or powerful, or just an ordinary man could be a harasser or an abuser is always greeted with denial.

We classify violence against women as “deviant” and “episodic.” Jeremy Corbyn uses the word “warped” all of the time, because we prefer that than to face the fact that violence against women and girls happens every day.

This isn’t one unwanted text or unwanted grope. Many women receive both of those things day after day after day. Trivializing them fails entirely to get to grips with the scale of violence against women. Accepting these things here makes it acceptable at the other end of the scale as well.

“There’s a total blindness in parliament to the impact of policy-making on women’s inequality” – Sophie Walker, Women’s Equality Party

There’s still a lack of training, safeguarding and understanding of what consent looks like, and understanding what harassment really is. But we’ve never moved past that to talk about the power imbalance that causes it.

Okay, so Parliament is starting to understand the importance of support systems for women in Westminster, but where is that support for women across the UK? Why are we not now understanding the huge impact of cutting funding to women’s organizations?

For every £100 that was saved by the Treasury through austerity measures up to 2020, women have paid £86 of that due to cuts to their benefits. There’s a total blindness in Parliament to the impact of policy-making on women’s inequality and the fact it entrenches already existing structural barriers.

Q: So is Prime Minister Theresa May’s newly announced grievance procedure enough to tackle harassment?

A: It’s nowhere near enough. To depend on victims of harassment to fix a problem that is systemic is folly.

Q: Have you ever experienced sexual harassment in UK politics yourself?

A: I’m not going to answer that question, because I think there’s too much focus on individual stories. In all of the interviews I’ve been doing around this – I’ve been asked in the middle of a live TV interview about my personal experiences of harassment and abuse.

I view this as another form of harassment, frankly. It is not for women to be put on the spot to share stories in a media that focuses on the details for populist reasons without doing the popular analytical work.

Q: So focusing on the smaller picture, instead of the bigger one?

A: There’s nothing normal about saying, “Tell me where he put his hand again, tell me how abused and frightened you were.” There’s a lack of responsibility from the Fourth Estate. We shouldn’t be forcing people to talk about stories they don’t want to talk about.

Q: What legislation or policies against sexual harassment does WEP support?

A: This whole party is about rebalancing power between men and women, I stress for the benefit of all. You don’t have to take my word for that. There are countless reports explaining why gender equality is absolutely fundamental to the healthy functioning of our economy and our society.

It adds billions of pounds to GDP above and beyond existing forecasts. It creates thousands of jobs.

This party is built around seven core objectives that aim to do that work: equal education, shared care, equal pay, equal representation in Parliament.

The whole thing is about understanding how we create and sustain inequality through all of the actions in all of these areas, and how we have to unpack all of them and rebuild them. Equality in the media is another key policy, because the media is such an important cultural tool in terms of telling stories and promoting understanding.

Q: What else needs to happen right now in Westminster to make sure this is a point of change?

A: Well, all of the above. This party was set up in order to get the job done faster. We’re not doing this because we all want to be in power, we’re doing it because we all want to get the job done. And we have said from Day 1 that we would prefer the other political parties to beat us to it.

In the last general election we hand-delivered copies of our manifesto to all of the other political parties saying please steal all of these ideas.

We talk about women’s equality as this phenomenally difficult intractable problem that’s going to take hundreds of years to fix, if we could only figure out where we’re going wrong, you know?

The thing is it’s not hard at all. It’s purely a matter of political will.

“It’s that fundamental imbalance of power that we have to address” – Sophie Walker, Women’s Equality Party

Q: What do you say to people who for some reason don’t believe sexual harassment is systemic?

A: I mean, I have about 1,000 people a day telling me that on Twitter. I’m not going to engage with every one of them, but I think the work of disproving that is my daily work. Everything I do is about showing not only that that is a normal failure of understanding the power imbalance at play, but also the when we fix that power imbalance it makes it better for everybody, including the person that’s saying that.

Q: Is there a problem of sexual harassment against men as well in Westminster?

A: Because sexual harassment is based on power, and there are men who are not in positions of power, there are also young men who will be experiencing harassment as a result of an abuse of power.

It’s that fundamental imbalance of power that we have to address.

Q: Is there anything to do with Westminster being a hostile work environment that sort of paves the way for abusers of power?

A: This happens everywhere. It happens in all of our businesses, and all of our institutions. As I said at the beginning of this interview, it is something which is endemic.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

[Full interview transcript]

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