Leading Article: Sex pests mean bad managers

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THEY JUST don't get it. Those lawyers, police officers, naval commanders. They may not like it, but women are a fixture in the modern workplace. They are not going to disappear back to domestic servitude. The rhythms of their lives are going to have to be accommodated in the places where we work. But why is it necessary to use the future tense? Women did not arrive in previously all-male environments yesterday. Their coming had been presaged for years. Those senior lawyers, soldiers and police officers have had a long time to prepare. And they refused. It's one thing that so few women are getting through the ranks to replace them as commanding officers, judges and the like. It's quite another damning indictment that so many women still suffer daily from the unwelcome sexual attentions of the men they work with, including their bosses.

Sexual attraction happens in the workplace; but is not and never can be an excuse for abuse of power. If men are allowed to get away with it, that speaks of a massive failure of managerial process. Sexual harassment is an organisational pathology which affects shareholders, customers and the wider efficiency of the economic system. With each passing year, women will be making an ever greater contribution to gross national product, as well as taking a growing part in provision of such hard-to-measure services as defence and policing. Their contribution would be all the greater if the places they worked, in the private and public sectors, were well managed.

Good management begins with the strict enforcement of norms of courteous conduct and mutual respect. It does not condone a groping hand up a woman's skirt, let alone a pig-headed refusal to countenance women's movement up the promotion ladder. To victimise women who dare to complain of their treatment is even worse. That men and women working together will form attachments - "have relationships" in the clotted phrase of the age - is a truism. And irrelevant. Any manager who cannot distinguish assent from oppression and provide avenues for complaint is not worth the name.

Yesterday Christopher Sutton-Mattocks stood down from the bench, several days after the Bar Council found him guilty of sexually harassing two pupils in his barrister's chambers. He may appeal. Judges, even part-timers, must be like Caesar's wife. And that is not for their own self-respect as practitioners of the law but for the sake of the legal system. Someone who cannot tell when his attentions are unwelcome can hardly be credited with forensic skill, let alone the sensitivity and imagination to conduct a court case. That firm statement by the Lord Chancellor's office against sexual harassment by judges is welcome.

Sadly the Sutton-Mattocks' case is not an isolated example of that special abuse of trust which occurs when a senior, a leader who may assess a subordinate's performance, uses his position in order to seek favours. This is managerial turpitude.

Yet it is with managers - partners in the case of accountants and lawyers - that the buck stops. There is no point hoping for some miraculous transformation of general attitudes in the workplace at large. Awareness training for employees only goes so far. Ultimately, harassment and the mistreatment of female colleagues, let alone women in junior positions, is a matter of managerial effectiveness. In public sector organisations there is no excuse. Police, fire-service, defence, local government, Whitehall: all are supposed to have been reformed. This kind of managerial failure implies that the much-vaunted innovations of recent years, supposedly soon to be celebrated in a Better Government White Paper, have not gone far enough. If police officers and other officials can treat women badly in the office or on the beat, what price fair policing and even-handed public service?

As for the private sector, clearly some managers (such as Mr Sutton-Mattocks) are all too ready to behave like "one of the boys". Customer pressure (from the clients of legal practices, for example) is a blunt instrument. There may thus be no alternative except a succession of brave women to speak up and bear the indignities and often the financial costs of taking action in industrial tribunals or using the creaky mechanisms of professional discipline.