Just a joke? #MeToo, Internet humour and feminist killjoys

2018-04-11 18.25.53Maja Brandt Andreasen is an AHRC- funded PhD student in feminist media studies at the University of Strathclyde. Her research project investigates rape discourse on humorous websites with the Weinstein allegations and the #MeToo movement as the case study.


The #MeToo movement remarkably created a shift in the public debate where victims were considered truthful and where sexual abuse was discussed as a systemic problem. At least that’s the impression I got from the mainstream media and my left-wing, feminist Twitter feed. However, when looking into social media sites that encourage users to share humorous responses to current events, I get a very different impression of the reactions to sexual abuse. Through my PhD research I look at memes about #MeToo and the Harvey Weinstein case on websites that encourage users to have fun and that “want to make the world a happier place”. My question is, though, who exactly is invited into this humorous space and who is excluded? You guessed it, this is of course a question of gender. The websites I’m analysing prove to be androcentric and heteronormative discursive spaces where users never mention their gender because they are always assumed to be male (and white, and heterosexual, and young, and able-bodied etc.). Should a female user reveal her identity she will be the target of abuse for having broken the unspoken rule of androcentrism, echoing the popular Internet trope “There are no girls on the Internet”.

Screen Shot 2018-04-10 at 17.56.24Screen Shot 2018-04-10 at 17.55.31

Image text: From Maja Brandt Andreasen’s data set.

As Judith Butler points out, language has the ability to injure us, to impose harm on us and is therefore not merely a harmless instrument of communication (Butler 1997). Similarly, I would argue that there is no such thing as harmless humorous discourse. It is never “just a joke” because our discursive spaces are always a product of our social, cultural and historical reality. When harmful or hurtful humorous discourse, such as dismissive memes about rape, is trivialised because it is “just a joke” it functions as a distraction from the structural problem with rape culture. A meme comparing Weinstein to Jabba the Hutt or a picture of a sock with the words #MeToo reveal a long line of assumptions about victims and abusers. In this example Weinstein is characterised as inhuman, as “other”, as something monstrous which distracts from the structural problem of sexual abuse. The truth is that sexual abuse isn’t limited to separate instances but is something most women experience to some extent, exactly what #MeToo pointed to. Also, comparing a sock (presumably used for masturbation) to a victim of sexual abuse not only ridicules the #MeToo movement, it also trivialises sexual harassment, abuse and rape.

What the sock image also reveals is how these humorous discursive spaces online function as androcentric communities. The humour is by men and for men which then often means that women are the punch-line of the jokes. As mentioned above, the consequence for female voices on these online spaces is verbal abuse. Humour here becomes a tool for inclusion and exclusion with a male producer of humorous content on one end of the spectrum and a female voice of disruption on the other. Female disruptive voices are dismissed and deemed humourless, in fact the trope of the humourless feminist is a favourite in these communities that consider themselves as a sort of freedom fighters in the feminist war against free speech. Again I ask: who exactly has access to freedom of speech and who is limited by it? Sara Ahmed (2010) refers to this disruptive feminist voice as a “feminist killjoy”. This is the person who protests, who speaks up and disrupts the spaces of joy and happiness which are only reserved for some and which marginalises and excludes others. I find the feminist killjoy to be an incredibly powerful, encouraging and empowering image when dealing with humorous rape discourse online. Victim blaming, rape myths and trivialisation of rape thrive in these spaces and I for one am not going to dismiss perpetuation of rape culture as “just a joke”. I wear my Feminist Killjoy t-shirt with pride. And by the way, I have an excellent sense of humour.


Works cited:

Ahmed, Sara. 2010. “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects).” The Scholar and Feminist Online 8 (3).http://sfonline.barnard.edu/polyphonic/ahmed_01.htm.
Butler, Judith. 1997. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Perfomative. London: Routledge.


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The UCU strikes: a battle for the future of Higher Education | British Politics and Policy at LSE

What type of university system do we want? One with a casualised workforce and vice-chancellors who can claim they deserve exorbitant pay packages for running
— Read on blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/the-ucu-strikes-a-battle-for-the-future-of-higher-education/

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Another year – and another chance to read genderpol’s top blogs of 2017


Graffiti: AUD Delhi Campus

Happy New Year to all our genderpol readers! To mark the beginning of a new year, we’re taking the opportunity to revisit the most-read blogs of 2017. Enjoy!

In November, we posted a series of blogs to raise awareness of 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence. Guest bloggers Lesley McMillan (Glasgow Caledonian) [link] and Deborah White (Trent University, Ontario) kicked off the series with a thought-provoking piece entitled Technologising Rape and Sexual Assault: Can we really innovate the problem away?  They examined a growing trend in ‘anti-rape’ technologies (prototypes and on-the-shelf products) which range from the farcical to the, frankly, sinister. They argue such technologies commodify the safety of women, misplace responsibility for rape and sexual assault on everyone except the perpetrator, and misrepresent the issue as individualised rather than society-wide.

Introducing genderED: A new hub for gender and sexuality teaching and research at University of Edinburgh  reported on the launch in 2017 of a new virtual portal that links researchers, students and teachers across the institution. We’re proud that the genderpol blog will provide a platform for the new hub in 2018.

We’ve been reporting on the under representation of women in Scottish politics and beyond since we started up the blog five years ago. In May Meryl Kenny, Fiona Mackay and Judith Sijstermans  (all University of Edinburgh) posted their latest report: Here We, Here We, Here We … Go (Again): Women and the 2017 Local Government Elections.  Although there was a small rise in the number of female councillors, less than one in three Scottish councillors is a women. A case of another year and another missed opportunity to achieve equal representation in Scottish politics…

In March, on International Women’s Day, we celebrated the end of an ambitious project by University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) to use social media to pose the question What is a Dangerous Woman? 365 days and more than 400 posts later the project succeeded beyond all expectations – and had grown a new global online community. In Reflections on a Year of Dangerous Women: Speaking Out, Listening, Resisting and Persisting! @genderpol’s Fiona Mackay – a member of the Dangerous Women Project Advisory Board – reflected on what a year of Dangerous Women has meant to her.

Thanks for your support and happy reading in 2018!

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Conversation with Emma Ritch, Engender

Christina Neuwirth, 11.12.17

CN: Thank you for taking the time to speak to me today! I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about Engender before we begin?

ER: Sure! Thank you for having me. Engender is Scotland’s feminist and advocacy organisation. Its membership is made up of a combination of organisations and individual. Engender works with other organisations on women’s social, economic, cultural and political equality.

CN: Great, thank you. So, in our email conversation you mentioned that you wanted to talk about primary prevention of sexual harassment. Can you talk a little bit more about that? I think my mind always jumps straight to health care when I hear the words ‘primary prevention,’ so I would be interested in learning more about how it works in this context.

ER: Of course! All primary prevention in terms of violence against women is based on the fact that women’s inequality is what leads to violence against women. In a workplace context that means that we should have mechanisms for reporting, investigation, sanctions when people breach the rules about sexual harassment, but we also need to prevent it in the first place. We can do this by getting rid of stereotypes and creating cultures that enable people to be themselves; creating an environment that is free from micro-aggressions dressed up as “banter”. We need to address the pay gap and the ways in which success is measured. The idea is: how can we make an atmosphere that is hostile to sexual harassment? We need to create an environment that respects women and does not reduce them.

CN: Thank you. If I was an employer, what would be some good practices for me to put in place? For example, I’m thinking that, if there were more women working in management positions, women employees might find it easier to report sexual harassment…?

ER: Yes – but primary prevention would address this before it even becomes an issue, to prevent it happening in the first place. Of course, if you’re an employer, you should have good policies to respond to sexual harassment when it occurs, but you should also be building the capacity of your workforcue to treat women as equal, to remove as many as the barriers to women as you can whether those are inside or outside of the workplace. Look at your whole workplace culture: where do you have your away days? Do you play golf or go to lap dancing bars where women may be made to feel unwelcome? How do you as an employer measure success? Do you solely incentivise risk taking, or do you also incentivize teams, collaboration and mentoring? The hidden, domestic labour that women do at work like making sure that everyone gets a birthday cake, pastoral care in academia – just build in thinking about the full picture of what people need to do at work when you’re thinking about who does well. When it comes to promotions, are you considering people who work part-time or flexible hours? Are you enabling women to work part-time if this suits them? You should encourage them and build their capacity to apply for jobs – as we know, women are less likely to apply when they feel that they don’t meet the full application criteria. Respect the talents and skills of everyone in the organisation and don’t undervalue or stigmatise work – for example, administrative work is often seen as not difficult and not requiring skill, which of course is wholly untrue.

CN: Thank you! Do you have any resources you feel I could link to at the end of this interview for our blog readers, so they can find out more?

ER: Think Business, Think Equality resources are very easy to use and include self-assessment and a tailored action plan. Close the Gap have done a whole set of modules for employers. Their resources can help employers to be better employers of women, specifically.

Christina Neuwirth is co-ordinator of the new gender and sexuality studies hub genderED. She is also a PhD researcher in Publishing Studies at the University of Stirling, where she is looking into gender equality in contemporary Scottish writing and publishing.

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ETUC report Safe at Home, Safe at Work

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This blog post by Dr Jane Pillinger is part of our series for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

Dr Jane Pillinger is a gender expert and author of the report ‘Safe at Home, Safe at Work: Trade union strategies to prevent, manage and eliminate workplace harassment and violence against women’. She has carried out research and policy advice on the issue of violence against women at work for the EU, ILO and European and global union federations. Recent work includes co-authoring a resource kit on ‘Gender Based Violence in Global Supply Chains’ for the ITC-ILO, advisory work with the Fair Wear Foundation on measures to tackle violence against women in the garment sector, and author of the report on Violence against women workers in transport for the European Transport Federation. She is currently writing a Guide to tackling violence against women at work for the ILO and UNWomen.

 The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) report ‘Safe at Home, Safe at Work: Trade union strategies to prevent, manage and eliminate workplace harassment and violence against women’ is based on 11 detailed country case studies (Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain and the UK) and European-level developments on gender-based violence and harassment at work, including domestic violence at work. The report has raised awareness amongst a wider audience of national and European policy makers about the need for the systematic inclusion of gender when dealing with violence and harassment at work. Gender-based violence and harassment is a form of discrimination that causes significant harm to women, whether it take place in the workplace, in public places, on public transport, in schools and colleges, or in the family. Trade unions have approached the issue in negotiations, collective bargaining, union awareness-raising, training and campaigns, and partnerships with women’s organisations working to end gender-based violence, and there are many good practices in the workplace that show the added value of trade unions actions, innovations and negotiations.

The report was prepared at time of rising violence and harassment against women at work, continued and widening gender inequalities at work, and a culture of sexism in the workplace. In part, this arises because of increasing levels of precarious work across Europe, but continues to exist because the workplace is closely connected to women’s wider roles that extend beyond it in the private domain of the home and family.

The spill-over of domestic violence at work is a new issue for trade union negotiations successfully carried out by unions in Spain, Denmark and to a lesser extent France and the UK. Because domestic violence can involve a wide range of abuses including emotional and financial abuse and ‘coercive control’, it can affect a woman’s capacity to get to work and to participate effectively and productively in the workplace. Trade unions are increasingly recognising the role of the workplace in preventing domestic violence, and the social and economic benefits that result from this. Workplace measures such as temporary paid leave, initial safety planning, changes in work location or parking spaces, and providing information about specialist domestic support organisations and protection orders in cases of stalking in the workplace, are some of the ways in which trade union representatives have supported victims and negotiated measures for their protection and temporary leave from work, particularly when they leave a violent partner. They enable victims to stay in their jobs and retain their financial independence, while also ensuring that workers are safe at work.

Despite many challenges, including working within patriarchal structures and cultures, the report documents the many inspiring and innovative ways in which women and men in trade unions have campaigned against gender-based violence and brought the issue into workplace negotiations, safety and health programmes, and initiatives on wellbeing at work.

The report documents:

  • Over 80 collective bargaining agreements and union negotiated workplace policies, as well as union initiatives to raise awareness, train negotiators and campaign for an end sexual harassment perpetrated by colleagues, managers and third-parties (e.g. violence perpetrated by customers/clients against women workers in restaurants and bars, in health services and in transport).
  • Over 40 examples of collective bargaining agreements and union-negotiated workplace policies on tackling domestic violence at work, as well as awareness raising, training and campaigns carried out by unions, often in partnership with domestic violence organisations.


Despite many of these innovations, the problem seems to be worsening, pointing to the need for stronger legal measures to prevent sexual harassment and violence against women workers. The scale of the problem can be seen in a recent European survey showing shocking levels of harassment and violence against women transport workers across Europe. See: Violence Against Women workers in Transport: http://www.etf-europe.org/etf-4009.cfm

The ETUC and many of its affiliates have long campaigned to end gender-based violence, and it has been a core objective of recent action programmes. One of the objectives of the ETUC’s Action Programme on Gender Equality, 2016-2019, is to contribute to eliminating gender-based violence and harassment at work and to continue to make the link between domestic violence and work-level protection.

The recent high-profile cases of sexual harassment in the media and in politics and in the #MeToo campaign have taken place at a time of significant national, European and international debates about gender-based violence at work. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has made a commitment to introduce a new international standard in 2018 on violence against women and men in the world at work. Trade unions are campaigning to ensure that there is a strong focus on gender-based violence in the new instrument, as seen in the highly visible campaign of the International Trade Union Confederation ‘Stop Gender Based Violence at Work’ [https://www.ituc-csi.org/gender-based-violence?lang=en]. The ratification by the EU and Member States of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) provides an important framework for an integrated approach to tackling violence against women. The EU ratification of the Convention will need an EU-level legal framework and strategy for implementation.

Conclusions and recommendations

Collective bargaining is one of the most important mechanisms for preventing and addressing violence against women at work, either as part of agreements that address violence against all workers, or in relation to sexual harassment at work, third-party violence or preventing domestic violence at work. However, the general trend towards reduced bargaining coverage and the decentralisation of bargaining puts limits on unions in some countries. A further issue is that, as violence and harassment have become a mainstream safety and health and wellbeing at work issue, there is a danger of it becoming de-gendered. Many unions therefore argue for effective gender mainstreaming strategies that will ensure that violence and harassment are addressed as a structural gender equality issue.

Having a strong legal framework is essential to enabling unions to negotiate concrete sectoral and workplace measures and many unions point to Spain as demonstrating good practice in this respect. The Organic Law 1/2004 on protection from domestic violence seeks to combat acts of violence that are considered discriminatory and includes measures to enable victims of domestic violence to remain in work. This has resulted in many collective bargaining agreements, harassment and violence protocols and gender-equality plans containing provisions on both sexual harassment at work and domestic violence at work.

Raising awareness, and training union negotiators and workplace representatives to have the skills and knowledge to integrate gender-based violence, including domestic violence, is a further priority. Workplace measures need to take account multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination so that the women most at risk of violence are protected. Having women in senior and decision-making roles, and as key negotiators in collective bargaining teams, is vital to ensuring that the issues are raised in negotiations. Some unions have used model agreements as a way of raising awareness and give negotiators appropriate language to be used in negotiations.

Ten things that the ETUC and ETUC affiliates can do to tackle gender-based violence and harassment at work.

  1. Prioritise sectoral and company-based social dialogue between unions and employers, jointly agreeing workplace policies, procedures and awareness raising actions amongst managers and workers.
  2. Ensure that women are in senior negotiating positions, as this has been shown to be critical to getting issues of gender-based violence and harassment onto bargaining agendas, particularly in male-dominated sectors.
  3. Produce guidance and model workplace policies, and train workplace representatives to negotiate agreements and policies to tackle violence and sexual harassment at work, third- party violence, and the prevention of domestic violence at work.
  4. Ensure that safety and health and wellbeing at work initiatives include a strong gender-based focus on the causes of and solutions to harassment and violence against women at work, and that they take into account gender inequalities and discrimination.
  5. Give information and support to workers experiencing gender-based violence and harassment and domestic violence.
  6. Work in partnership with NGOs and specialist violence against women organisations, for example in carrying out campaigns and union surveys to raise awareness about the extent and nature of gender-based violence at work.
  7. Encourage women and men in leadership, negotiating and decision-making positions to raise public awareness and act as champions for a zero-tolerance approach to violence against women.
  8. Highlight the economic and social case for tackling violence at work, including the business arguments such as improving workplace relations, enhancing wellbeing at work, retaining workers, reducing absence from work, and increasing motivation and productivity.
  9. Lobby for the inclusion of effective measures to address gender-based violence at work and domestic violence at work in governments’ national action plans on violence against women, in the implementation of the Istanbul Convention and the proposed ILO instrument on violence against women and men in the world of work.
  10. Implement measures to include and address gender-based violence and harassment in European sectoral social dialogue agreements and joint statements.


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Guest blog post by Talat Yaqoob

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This blog post by Talat Yaqoob (Women 50:50) is part of our series for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

Talat Yaqoob is the co-founder and Chair of the Women 50:50 campaign, which is fighting for legislated candidate quotas in local council and Scottish Parliament election and works to ensure the diversity of women is truly represented across politics.

The past few months have been a turbulent time for politics across the UK, not in the usual sense of infighting and constitutional nightmares, but instead some temporary focus managed to be on women and their experiences.

In October of this year, Holyrood and Westminster were rocked by sexual harassment claims, but women who have been working in political parties, in parliaments or in councils were not “rocked” by this news, most nodded knowingly, having experienced the casual sexism and in many cases the direct harassment that has come to light. Our parliament or councils do not exist in isolation from the rest of society, where there is patriarchy preventing social justice for women; there too are forces of patriarchy in our democracy. The inequality is clearest in who is represented; only 35% of MSPs are women (down from 40% in 2007), there are only 29% women councillors and there are 103 wards with no representation from women whatsoever.

A very specific point needs to be made, and loudly, about the intersection of race and gender in our democracy; since the day of devolution there has never been a black or minority ethnic (BME) woman in the Scottish Parliament and across the councils in the 2017 local elections, we went from 4 BME woman councillors to 3. This is despite a focus on gender equality and outreach from political parties, which should lead us to ask; which women are they targeting their outreach too? Aside from it clearly not having enough impact overall, it would seem what little is being done is targeted at those who are easiest to find and are already closest to participation.

Inside the Scottish Parliament, its Corporate Body has 1 woman and 5 men and its Business Bureau is all male. Combined, these groups govern over the programme of parliamentary business, HR, equality and diversity and staff/MSP conduct – until last month, both of these groups were all male, however a resignation led to one of the male members of the corporate body resigning and recommending a woman take his place. That was certainly a welcome move, but the fact that these groups were all male, should have bothered those in the parliament long before these sexual harassment cases came to be known.

Why am I talking about representation during the 16 days of activism on violence against women? Because political under-representation is part of the continuum of inequality that allows violence against women to persist in our society. Women missing from decision making means poorer, less well informed decisions are made, often hurting women the most. Women missing from our politics and leadership feeds the perceptions that they are less capable of or less well suited to these roles and drives deeper the stereotypes that inhibit women’s ambitions and opportunities.

It is a Westminster parliament, with only 29% women MSPs, that passed universal credit, the family cap, the rape clause and austerity measures which disproportionality impact women (and women of colour, refugee women and disabled women the most). Yes, there is a woman Prime Minister leading the charge on these decisions, I do not expect that every woman elected will be a feminist or should be the voice for all women, but I do firmly believe that institutions which have (and have always had) a majority of men making decisions, create systems which benefit those like them. This has been proved in every avenue of society. More women around the decision making table, with diverse lived experience, from across political thinking makes for better systems and better outcomes.

The continuum of inequality, of which under-representation is just one part, can be vividly seen in how our women parliamentarians are treated. Once women have got through the sexism they face within their parties, have earned their stripes and run for selection, have managed to deal with the questions asked of their capabilities, their “work/life balance” (which we simply do not ask of men), make it on to the ballot paper in a winnable seat and make it into council or parliament, what awaits them is unacceptable.

The way women are represented in traditional media needs to be challenged and overcome. We have seen the First Minister photo-shopped onto a bikini wearing Miley Cyrus and more recently, the Daily Mail went with a front page headline “Never Mind Brexit, who won legs-it?” commenting on Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon’s bodies. Forget that they were meeting to discuss the most critical issue in the UK today, how did their legs look? Such commentary and imagery only feeds the idea that women are there to be objectified and even as leaders, are not to be taken seriously.

But it is not restricted to our papers. The way they are treated by the public on social media is horrifying, Amnesty UK conducted research on the treatment of women MPs on social media platforms such as Twitter and found that women were more likely to be subjected to abuse and whilst all MPs suffer unacceptable abuse online, women experienced specifically gendered, misogynistic abuse. Of the tweets they investigated, 41% of abuse was targeted at BME women representative despite there being eight times as many white MPs (Diane Abbot taking the brunt of these attacks, with almost a third of the abuse directed solely at her.). This is violence and it must be tackled. We need to work on the structural barriers within political parties which exclude women’s participation through quota mechanisms and equally, we need to genuinely challenge misogynistic attitudes and make such views socially unacceptable to all, not just those of us working in equality and diversity.

All of the above is part of that continuum of inequality, where we silently condone one aspect, we normalise the next, and the next, until violence against women becomes the epidemic it is today. The Women 50:50 campaign is working on one aspect of women’s inequality, but we recognise the multiple and layered inequality women face. That is why we are proud to work with and champion women’s organisations across Scotland who work on policy making, the labour market, BME women’s participation and violence against women.

Scotland needs to take bold action on every aspect of this continuum and at the same time, from women’s political participation to their experiences of sexual or domestic violence – because no woman’s life exists in silos.


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Safe at Home, Safe at Work

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This blog post by Ann Henderson is part of our series for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

The publication of the European TUC Report Safe at home, safe at work: Trade unions’ strategies to prevent, manage and eliminate work-place harassment and violence against women’ in June this year marked a significant contribution to bringing about effective change in workplaces and in our communities, recognising the key role for trade unions and their responsibilities at local and national level, including through collective bargaining and workplace agreements.

The Report is extensive, having collected evidence from 11 countries, including the UK. Both the TUC and the STUC contributed to the case studies. It has been presented to the European Commission, and work continues on implementing its recommendations.

It contains many examples of good practice, and further establishes clarity between the different practical and policy responses to sexual harassment in the workplace as distinct from supporting those experiencing domestic abuse and how that impacts the workplace too.

Establishing a workplace culture that does not tolerate bullying or harassment is central to the Fair Work agenda, to which Scottish Government, the STUC, and employers signed up, in March 2016, endorsing the Fair Work Framework.

‘Fair Work’ is defined through five dimensions: effective voice, opportunity, fulfilment, security and respect. The Framework identifies trade unions as contributing to all these objectives, and recognises that collective organisation gives more effective voice to the needs and concerns of individual workers. In the context of tackling sexual harassment in the workplace, we envisage a key role for trade unions, and there is an opportunity here for the Fair Work Convention to examine some of the recommendations of the ETUC Report, and consider how their implementation could assist in Scotland with delivering on the Fair Work Framework.

The TUC ‘Still Just a Bit of Banter’ report on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace in 2016, produced in conjunction with the Everyday Sexism project found that for many women sexual harassment was not a one-off incident, but something that had happened many times throughout their working lives. Of all those polled, over half had experienced some form of sexual harassment at work. The TUC Report also made a number of useful recommendations, including the reintroduction of third party harassment legislation; recognition and facility time for trade union equality reps; and to extend full range of employment rights to all workers, regardless of employment status or type of contract. Employers are encouraged to provide decent jobs, good training, and clear policies with effective enforcement – and trade unions are also encouraged to provide training, to run workplace campaigns, and to lead on negotiating workplace polices. Effective enforcement of health and safety legislation and using the statutory powers of health and safety reps can make a big difference in workplace culture and environment.

With such a wealth of resources, and the recognition by the Scottish Government of the role of trade unions and the recognition of the benefits of collective bargaining, it is concerning to find that the Scottish Government recently published the Delivery Plan for ‘Equally Safe, Scotland’s Strategy to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls’ with absolutely no mention of trade unions, equality reps, workplace representation, or collective bargaining and trade union agreements. There is virtually no crossover with the Fair Work Framework, despite the fact that trade unions are represented on both the Equally Safe Strategic Board and on the Fair Work Convention.  The proposed pilot accreditation programme for employers gives no recognition to the extensive work already carried out through the trade union movement, nor the role that union reps can play in securing clear workplace agreements, rather than simply ‘urging’ or ‘encouraging’ good practice.

The ETUC Report also makes a distinction between tackling domestic violence and its impact in the workplace, developing good policies to support those employees experiencing domestic violence, and the strategies needed to ensure workplaces are free from sexual harassment and bullying.  In Scotland, a working group at COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) included the four key public sector unions, the GMB, UNITE, UNISON, and the EIS, has been developing guidance on domestic abuse policies in local government workplaces. Hopefully this is being taken forward, although it is not referenced in the Equally Safe Delivery Plan.

In 1998, in a paper published for the Scottish Office Central Research Unit, Dr Sheila Henderson of Reid Howie Associates, brings together the summaries of four separate reports on the lived experience of, and policies to tackle, domestic violence. Moving towards the common understanding which shaped the first Scottish Government strategy, after the Scottish Parliament was established, the Report clearly states ‘Domestic violence occurs in all social groups, and is not caused by stress, unemployment, poverty or mental illness, nor by the women who experience the abuse’. The first Labour/ Liberal Democrat Scottish Government allocated significant increases in funding to Women’s Aid and projects supporting women and children, and set a different tone for all our work.

Holding on to that understanding of the nature of domestic violence is important, and can also frame our understanding of the way in which the abuse of power manifests itself through sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace and in our communities. Whether a woman works as a cleaner, admin worker, engineer or astronaut, sexual harassment in the workplace and in the wider community is unacceptable. Trade unions can play a vital part in developing a culture, and creating safe and healthy workplaces for all. Domestic violence does not distinguish between women by their occupation or income either, and our strategies must meet the needs of all women.  For example, if there is no serious investment in public sector housing, directly under the control of local councils and communities, then the options for women to find alternatives to living with domestic violence which are secure for themselves and any children are removed for all women, regardless of occupation.

In fact, one of the biggest problems for women who are dealing with domestic violence, is to recognise the support needed to remain in employment, and not be faced with losing a job through irregular attendance, workplace harassment, or unauthorised leave. Trade unions and clear collective bargaining and representation can ensure agreements are reached on periods of unpaid leave, support in transferring to another location if appropriate, and other measures which recognise this situation is not the woman’s fault. The ETUC study contains some excellent examples from other European countries.

In Slovenia, a workplace policy on sexual harassment and bullying has been signed between Mercator, a supermarket chain with over 10,000 employees, and the trade union ZSSS (commerce sector). This makes clear there will be no tolerance of such behaviour; identifies a dedicated staff team and helpline; and the trade unions report an 80% resolution rate on cases raised so far. A significant proportion of those cases raised, involved bullying and harassment from management team members, and the agreement between the employer and the union was vital in providing a route for dealing with the issues.

Unions in Bulgaria flagged up the vulnerability of all casual and migrant labour, highlighting the problems of low pay, poor working conditions, and psychological violence and harassment in the garment sector, with a mainly female workforce.

The importance of the law as an enabler for then progressing workplace agreements is illustrated in several country case studies. In Spain, countrywide legislation Organic Law 3/2007 on gender equality paved the way for unions to conclude agreements at company level through equality plans which include the prevention of sexual and gender based harassment.

In the UK, USDAW the shopworkers union has developed a ‘Freedom from Fear’ campaign, focussing in particular on safe travel to and from work, and improving lighting and security on entering and leaving premises. Representing workers in the retail sector, mainly women, USDAW also has taken up the issue of third party harassment, despite the removal of this provision from the Equality Act 2010 by the Conservatives government. Shop owners have responsibility to ensure a safe and healthy working environment for their staff.

For over 15 years, UNISON has been promoting workplace policies on domestic violence, following on from an effective ‘Raise the Roof’ report. A guide published in 2016 gives information  and raises awareness for to union reps about the causes and effects of domestic violence, gives information on signs which may indicate domestic violence is an underlying issue, and states that employers have a duty of care to their employees. Alongside this, a leaflet is available to all employees about how to seek help if experiencing domestic abuse.

The TUC’s Occupational Safety and Health Working group published a ‘Gender Sensitivity Checklist’ to assist Health and Safety Reps in raising issues with the employer, which includes checking ‘Does the employer recognise that domestic violence can become an issue at the workplace and treat the matter as a safety, health and welfare issue which needs to be dealt with sympathetically and practically? ‘

Tackling violence against women and girls is indeed everyone’s responsibility, and trade unions have a big part to play. Let’s recognise that, and draw on the work developed so far. Collective voice can speak louder than that of individuals, and set out boundaries and agreements in workplaces which will make a significant difference to women’s lives, both at home and at work.


Ann Henderson





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