SEX HARASSMENT: VICTIMS TELL THEIR STORIES
Women working in communal organisations recount their experiences of inappropriate behaviour from male colleagues
JEWISH WOMEN spoke out this week about their personal experiences of sexual harassment while working for communal organisations.
In the wake of allegations that have rocked Hollywood and Westminster, the six women described how they had been the victims of inappropriate behaviour from male colleagues, and recalled how their complaints were ignored.
All but one of the women, Ella Rose, asked to remain anonymous, and we have given them pseudonyms. We have not named the organisations they worked for in order to protect their identities.
“Beth” held a senior position in one of the community’s leading organisations for more than 20 years.
During her career in the community she regularly witnessed and experienced sexual harassment and was discouraged from reporting a serious incident by a senior figure. The worst incident came early on in her career, she said.
“We were based in a central London office and had just been assigned our own security guard.
“I walked past him every day on the way into work. He was very friendly and I’d say good morning. There was an air lock which we had to go through to get into the building, which is common in most communal buildings.
“One day he followed me in and tried to kiss me. It came out of nowhere I was really shocked and pushed him off.
“It was completely inappropriate. He was supposed to be there to protect us.”
Beth immediate- ly informed her line manager about what had happened.
“I was encouraged to just forget about it and told that, if I made an official complaint we ‘might lose the guard and it would be my fault.’
“I was very upset, and felt uncomfortable to have to walk past this guard every morning.
“The worst thing for me was that I was not supported.”
The line manager now holds a senior position in the community.
Beth insisted that she had managed to put the incident behind her, yet acknowledged that, years later, she still feared speaking out about it. “I wouldn’t want to be identified today because I don’t want the backlash,” she said. The community needed an “independent body” women could report harassment to,” she felt.
“The culture of the community is very tribal. It is impossible for people to feel comfortable about reporting any sort of problem at work.”
“Rebecca” works in a senior role in a communal organisation and has experienced sexual harassment which ranges from lewd comments to groping.
She said: “I’ve had everything, including inappropriate touching. It’s been so bad that I’ve had non-Jewish members of staff comment on what I’ve experienced.
“I’ll be in a meeting where I’ve suggested a woman for some assignment and my male colleagues have commented ‘oh yeah, she has great tits’.”
“I’ve had inappropriate physical touching from senior colleagues used as a way of intimidation.”
She said the behaviour was done to “humiliate me and undermine my authority.
“Even at this stage in my career, there is a fear of speaking out about these things.”
Other examples of inappropriate behaviour she experienced included being told to by colleagues to “dress sexy” when going to meet donors.
“I think it is done to remind me of my place,” she said. “When meeting funders I’ve experience a lot of ‘handsy’ behaviour. I’ve learnt to shimmy out of the way.”
“Chloe”, who is the only female employee at her communal organisation, said she felt it would be impossible to report sexual harassment.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable. I work for a small organisation with three to four staff members.
“If I had a complaint, the people I would be reporting it to are their friends, they are on the board with them. I’ve experienced sexual harassment like many women, but it would be very difficult to report an abuse of power.”
“Cathy” has worked in the community for more than 40 years — meeting senior figures is a regular part of her job.
She said: “You either toughed it out or you crumbled. I had some deplorable incidents early on in my career but it was all par for the course. There was no one to complain to and there still isn’t. As I got better in my job, I was more confident in navigating situations where I was in danger of being sexually assaulted and now I’m older it doesn’t happen.
“I went to meet an official in a hotel room, which was often the norm, and was chased around the room by him.
“I said ‘stop it and sit down, what is wrong with you,’ but it was hard to control him.
“I think a lot of men operate on the basis of what they can get away with and I think that is true right across the community.
“Ninety-eight per cent of the communal leadership were rich and powerful men and we women were easy prey.”
She described male colleagues inappropriately stroking her neck during meetings and one pinning her against a wall.
“Am I wounded? Not really, but would I be if I were someone else? Sure”.
“Claire”, who works for a leading communal organisation, said the issue of sexual harassment was not being addressed by the communal leadership.
“The recent allegations in wider society have been a missed opportunity to reassure Jewish women,” she said.
“I have experienced sexual harassment at work but I don’t feel safe in saying so. The Jewish community doesn’t move on, and senior people like to remind you: ‘you don’t want to become known as the person who said that thing’.
“People remind you of that constantly. There should be no stigma attached to saying you’ve been sexually harassed, but there is.”
The lack of formal human resources departments at communal organisations made the situation worse, she said.
“A lot of the time if you are young, it is not clear who you can go to. If your boss is friends with his boss, but is inappropriate with you, then where do you turn?”
Ella Rose, the director of the Jewish Labour Movement, was the only women out of more than 30, prepared to be named as someone who had experienced sexual harassment. The 23-year-
I was encouraged to just forget about it’
old is one of community’s youngest leaders.
She told the JC: “I have experienced sexual harassment within the Jewish community, and have no doubt I am not alone.
“Sexual harassment is a prevalent issue in society, and the Jewish community is not immune from this. It can be found at every level; it’s a serious issue that isn’t spoken about, and needs urgent attention.”
ICALL IT the Scheherazade Effect: my expression for the way girls had to manipulate, charm and edge their way out of sexual harassment at the JC. Yes, the JC! When I started here in my 20s, back in the 1970s, I was the only woman reporter and I could not imagine lasting out the week, so many senior editors were lunging, touching and smooching. If you were not agile enough to manage a pre-emptive escape, life would be a true battlefield.
Why Scheherazade ? For those who don’t know One Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade was the last bride in a string of victims of a rapacious and bloodthirsty sultan who had each one murdered after the first night of honeymoon. She saved herself by telling a nightly series of brilliant cliff-hangers, which led to him falling in love with her and sparing her life.
I’m not talking murder at the JC, of course, but the way to stave off these men’s unwelcome advances was to keep talking about other things, reminding them of their wives and children, praising their brilliant articles, charming them, until they slowly — very slowly, if ever — began to see you as a human being and not a sexual plaything.
So endemic was the problem that the victim began to collude with her attacker, believing in some Freudian way, that he was unwell and had to be understood, not confronted. One man would get nasty if confronted. So I tried political analysis, of which I knew nothing at all, which launched him onto the safer territory of furious intellectual rebuttal. But that only reinforced how diminished I felt.
There were lewd remarks, that you somehow deflected and the touchy-feely types you tried to avoid being alone with. One man managed a quick grab while I was in his office. I was dreaming of the hot story I was about to break, rather than worrying about my physical proximity to his wandering hands.
But worst of all, was the day when I walked into one senior executive’s office. His door bore a red light, so I politely knocked. Once inside, I turned to face him — to find he had exposed himself. Shocked and disbelieving, I offered some gibbering excuse about the editor needing to see me, and made a quick getaway. This was something you read about in the papers; half-dressed blokes leaping out of bushes in the park, not something you expect in a newspaper office.
After my first baby was born I tentatively ventured back to that red light district, intent on selling a story idea. Things would be better this time. I was a mother now. I was also heavily into reading Hinduism and Buddhism and the kind of transcendental stuff I thought I could offer those poor misguided souls who saw only the body and not the spirit.
I walked in holding the baby. I might as well have brought the cat. Undeterred, this same man ventured furtively towards me, his watery eyes fixed, extending his groping paws and ignoring my diminutive protector (will she ever forgive me?).
“If you gaze deeply into my eyes,” I said as hypnotically as I could, “you won’t fancy me at all because you will see your mother.” Needless to say, that didn’t work. He pleaded with me to stay. I have to admit I was torn between disgust and sympathy for what I considered — and still believe to be — an untreated psycho-sexual condition on his part. Clutching my baby daughter, once again I beat a hasty retreat. I was angry but also deeply sad.
Working freelance in Fleet Street proved easier, apart from a publication where I tried offering stories to a scarily lascivious, CzechJewish editor with a mordant wit. He suggested lunch and the harassment began in the taxi and ended in a restaurant where he had booked a private room. With his hands groping everywhere except the salmon en croute, I managed to free myself and flee in time, lamenting later that I hadn’t sold a single story .
Girls like me at the time, would joke about sexual harassment, with a kind of gallows humour. We lived by our wits. Had I spoken to the JC’s editor — himself eternally aloof, gentlemanly and courteous — he would have been horrified, embarrassed and might have wondered if it was really worthwhile employing a woman reporter. So I said nothing. I am only prepared to speak now, as the culprits are all dead. As I say, Scheherazade was our role model.
“Sexual harassment is prevalent throughout society and the Jewish community is not immune”
Gloria in her twenties