Sex­ual ha­rass­ment al­leged at coun­cil

The Oban Times - - NEWS - SANDY NEIL sneil@oban­

A FE­MALE coun­cil­lor from Oban has ac­cused fel­low Ar­gyll and Bute coun­cil­lors of ‘low-level sex­ual ha­rass­ment’ at work, and ‘in­ap­pro­pri­ately touch­ing’ mem­bers of staff.

Julie McKen­zie, SNP coun­cil­lor for Oban North and Lorn, said since be­ing elected in 2016 she had been sub­jected to ‘in­ap­pro­pri­ate com­ments’ from coun­cil­lors, in­clud­ing be­ing called a ‘hot blonde’ and ‘a dis­trac­tion in the coun­cil cham­ber’, and called for the cul­ture to change.

Ms McKen­zie made the claims in an open let­ter to the coun­cil’s leader and chief ex­ec­u­tive, Coun­cil­lor Aileen Mor­ton and Cle­land Sned­don re­spec­tively, to raise the ‘top­i­cal is­sue of work­place sex­ual ha­rass­ment’, adding her ex­pe­ri­ences were just ‘the tip of the ice­berg’.

‘We as a coun­cil have much work to do in this area,’ Ms McKen­zie wrote. ‘From the start I would like you both to know that I have not found this let­ter easy to com­pose.

‘This let­ter is not de­signed to be a witch-hunt or an ex­er­cise in point­ing the fin­ger at any­one. It’s a plea for some col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity, in not just talk­ing about bring­ing about a cul­tural shift at Ar­gyll and Bute Coun­cil but ac­tu­ally mak­ing it hap­pen.

‘Since join­ing the coun­cil I have been in­cred­i­bly dis­turbed, dis­ap­pointed and of­ten of­fended by the cul­ture I find my­self im­mersed in. A cul­ture where some male elected mem­bers ap­pear to think noth­ing of mak­ing in­ap­pro­pri­ate com­ments to me as a fe­male coun­cil­lor and to fe­male mem­bers of staff.

‘I can give many ex­am­ples of the com­ments I have been sub­jected to, from be­ing told by a male coun­cil­lor that he “finds me a dis­trac­tion in the coun­cil cham­ber” to be­ing called a “hot blonde” and be­ing told that I “should be kept on a leash”.

‘While all at the lower end of the ha­rass­ment spec­trum, these com­ments are of­fen­sive and the ex­cuses for them are like noth­ing I’ve heard in any other work­place. It’s al­most as though it’s ac­cepted by some as an in­te­gral part of work­ing in a po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment.

‘I’ve also had it ex­plained to me as a “gen­er­a­tional thing” which, while that may be true, doesn’t make it any less un­ac­cept­able. I find it hor­ri­fy­ing that I have ac­tu­ally now reached a point where I fully ex­pect sex­u­ally mo­ti­vated com­ments from some male coun­cil­lors.’

Ms McKen­zie added she had also wit­nessed in­ap­pro­pri­ate com­ments from male coun­cil­lors to fe­male mem­bers of staff, ei­ther be­ing made di­rectly to them or in con­ver­sa­tion with other male coun­cil­lors. The com­ments are al­ways based on how fe­male mem­bers of staff are dressed, their phys­i­cal­ity or their looks.

‘This is to­tally un­ac­cept­able. Not only does it place staff in an im­pos­si­ble po­si­tion but it also up­sets, com­pletely un­der­mines and de­mor­alises them. How do I know how fe­male staff feel? I know be­cause some of them have had the courage to speak to me in con­fi­dence about it.

‘They have also told me about in­ci­dents of in­ap­pro­pri­ate touch­ing by male coun­cil­lors and that many staff are fear­ful of speak­ing out for all the usual rea­sons women don’t come for­ward, but also wor­ry­ingly be­cause there is a per­cep­tion within the coun­cil that elected mem­bers can do what they want with no reper­cus­sions.

‘It has prompted me to have a look for our poli­cies on work­place ha­rass­ment and in par­tic­u­lar sex­ual ha­rass­ment. It con­cerns me greatly that I can­not find pol­icy or pro­ce­dure for tak­ing for­ward a com­plaint. While it may well ex­ist, it should be easy for any­one to find.

‘It ap­pears that as cur­rent pol­icy stands a coun­cil­lor in­volved in an in­ap­pro­pri­ate re­la­tion­ship with a staff mem­ber would not face reprisals, while a staff mem­ber would be dis­ci­plined and pos­si­bly face dis­missal. The power im­bal­ance in this just doesn’t sit right with me.

‘Sweep­ing it un­der the car­pet or, worse still, be­ing ac­cept­ing of it is no longer an op­tion. Women at Ar­gyll and Bute Coun­cil de­serve to be treated with dig­nity and to­tal re­spect.’

A spokesper­son for the coun­cil said: ‘Ar­gyll and Bute Coun­cil is com­mit­ted to cre­at­ing a work en­vi­ron­ment where ev­ery­one is treated with dig­nity and re­spect. We do not tol­er­ate ha­rass­ment of any kind in the work­place and have a range of poli­cies and pro­ce­dures which sets out the stan­dards of be­hav­iour ex­pected from ev­ery­one at the coun­cil and sup­ports any­one who wishes to raise a com­plaint.

‘We would take any al­le­ga­tion of ha­rass­ment ex­tremely se­ri­ously. We are not deal­ing with any other com­plaints.’

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