Joan Smith: The culture of impunity, then and now

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The Independent Online

You're in your 20s, driving home from a meeting on a winter night with a much older colleague. Suddenly he suggests pulling into a layby to have sex with you. You're aghast but you stay calm and tell him to keep driving. Do you complain to your boss? The man is senior to you and has been at the company for years. Complain to your union? He's a union official.

A couple of senior executives take a group of you out to lunch. Afterwards, you go back to someone's flat and the next thing you know, one of the executives has his tongue in your mouth and his hand between your legs. You fight him off. A few days later, you hear that people are joking about it behind your back.

These are not theoretical examples of sexual harassment. They happened to me during my first few years in journalism, but it wasn't something that happened only in the media. The multiplying accusations against Jimmy Savile have put the BBC under a spotlight but they're an extreme version – because Savile was famous and DJs regarded as untouchable – of a problem that existed in offices and factories up and down the country. A friend of mine recalls sexual harassment as an "industrial hazard" of the period.

It's not difficult to work out why it was so widespread. In the 1970s and 1980s, young women were a minority in offices and there was an attitude that you had to "prove" yourself: Can't you take a joke? Some of it was opportunist – bored middle-aged men suddenly found themselves working alongside smart young women – and some of it, I'm sure, was about a dominant group teaching outsiders their place.

Decades later, it's hard to explain how normal all this was. We learned ways of dealing with it, how to protect ourselves and each other without jeopardising our careers. In one office I discovered that the secretaries and researchers, who were all women, had an informal network which they used to warn each other about particularly predatory men.

It was a culture of impunity, which is what Savile's behaviour appears to have exposed at the BBC. It began to change for two reasons: growing numbers of women in the workforce, which meant we could no longer be regarded as interlopers, and a feminist critique which gave victims a language. Pinning a woman across a desk in an empty office and kissing her takes on a new complexion when she springs up and names it as harassment.

Victims need bosses who understand that, far from being a joke, such matters are disciplinary offences. Women are more likely to be targeted but it shouldn't happen to anyone. As someone who has experienced it, I can assure you there's nothing funny about sexual harassment.