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"You can't say anything anymore"

03 Feb 2020  |  Michaela Jefferson 
"You can't say anything anymore"

Tackling sexual harassment should be something that unites adland, but instead it's clear that some of us feel our freedoms and behaviours are under attack. Here's why that's not the case

You really don't have to go too far to see or hear disparaging comments about adland's attempts to tackle the problem of sexual harassment within the workplace.

"Talking about this is sucking all the fun and spontaneity out of the industry"; "This #MeToo stuff has gone too far"; "I'm scared to even be alone in a room with a woman".

Or, as in one jarring encounter I had during an industry event: "I'd say I like your top, but I guess guys like me aren't allowed to anymore."


Tackling sexual harassment should be something that unites the industry, but instead it's clear that some of us feel that our freedoms and behaviours are being attacked. And that's pretty frustrating, because if progress is going to be made everyone needs to be pulling in the same direction.

In October last year, adland's answer to the #MeToo movement, timeTo, revealed that in the 12 months since the campaign launched in 2018, one in 10 survey respondents claimed to have been sexually harassed. Of those, less than a quarter reported the incident.

In response, the campaign has launched awareness training sessions for its endorsing companies - and I went along to a preview session.

It could happen to anyone, no matter how clued-up you think you are"

Surprisingly, sitting around a table discussing sexual harassment for three hours was an oddly enjoyable experience. Led by lead trainer Bryony Beynon - who also spearheads the Good Night Out campaign - the sessions are relaxed, interactive, and enlightening.

The session covered a lot of ground: from the many hurdles victims of sexual harassment face before ever managing to report an incident, to commonly-believed myths (yes, if a colleague harasses or assaults you off-site it is still your employer's responsibility), to the ways in which you might hold a position of power over somebody which transcend corporate seniority.

But if one thing was made abundantly clear, it's that the phrase "you can't say anything anymore" simply isn't true.

You can say literally whatever you want, whenever you want, as long as you're willing to own your words and take responsibility for their impact regardless of the intent behind them.

"Impact always trumps intent," says Beynon. You can see that rule applied almost universally elsewhere - if you accidentally knock someone down driving to work, you are responsible for that impact. We might not mean to destroy our planet in the pursuit of easy transport, fast fashion and fast food, but we are responsible for the impact of climate change.

And yet, when it comes to other people's emotions that seems to be a more difficult pill to swallow.

If you want to say you like someone's top, you can. In many situations compliments are appreciated. But even with the best intentions, a comment can land badly - and you have to be open to accepting that.

It could happen to anyone, no matter how clued-up you think you are - that you make a comment which causes a person to feel violated, degraded or humiliated, with no intention to have done so.

So if you do say or do something that lands badly - accept the impact you've had, claim responsibility for it, apologise, and move on. If you don't want to risk it, then how hard is it really to keep your interactions strictly professional in order to make people feel safe at work?

And if you do have bad intentions, or you do cross an obvious line? Well, that's really what the timeTo campaign is trying to stamp out.

TimeTo isn't just another hoop for adland to jump through, and it isn't an attack. It's something for the entire industry to feel incredibly proud of.

However, at the moment behaviour with a negative impact doesn't get reported or called out. For many it feels like there are too many hurdles and the race is too long.

If we empower people not just to report or address incidents that make them uncomfortable when they happen, but also empower people to own their words and actions and accept the impact caused by them, perhaps we can reach a point where that conversation is easier for everyone.

That's certainly not something to be fearful of.

Other than Hollywood's MeToo movement, there are few (if any) sectors in the UK that have an organised campaign targeting sexual harassment, and that's not because it's not happening elsewhere.

TimeTo isn't just another hoop for adland to jump through, and it isn't an attack. It's something for the entire industry to feel incredibly proud of.

These training sessions could be hugely valuable for everyone - whether you're statistically vulnerable to experiencing sexual harassment, or concerned of exhibiting behaviours that might make someone else feel harassed.

But in reality, progress will be made difficult if responsibility to get educated is palmed off onto junior staff and middle management.

Senior employees set the tone for an entire company, so their responsibility is elevated. Junior employees need to see that sexual harassment is an issue being taken seriously at every level of the business, and senior management need to be sure that they are behaving in a way which makes everybody feel safe.

So CEOs, MDs and senior managers - you need to make time for these sessions too.

More information about timeTo awareness training can be found here.

Anyone experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment and seeking confidential advice and support should contact the team at NABS on 0800 707 6607.

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22 May 2020 

Data from Mediatel Connected
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