Sexual harassment alleged at council
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.’