Sexual harassment is damaging the reputation of the public affairs sector

Talking about sexual harassment is never a comfortable conversation.

It's not hard to imagine that the less savoury behaviours in the corridors of power have bled over into the industry, argues Laura Sainsbury
It's not hard to imagine that the less savoury behaviours in the corridors of power have bled over into the industry, argues Laura Sainsbury

I wish it wasn’t a conversation we had to have at all, but as this research makes shamefully clear, it remains a huge issue across our industry.

As I’m sure many will agree, I found the PRCA’s figures extremely concerning, but not surprising.

'I felt like he was a predator': Exclusive sexual harassment survey lifts the lid on abuse in PR industry

Almost every woman – and many men – in our sector will have a story, either their own or a friend’s, and will have been warned away from socialising with particular individuals.

At the moment, many people affected by sexual harassment are suffering in silence, unable to share their experiences with confidence that anything positive will happen as a result.

Indeed, Women in Public Affairs' very origins are in part a response to this lack of confidence and almost a feeling of ‘otherness’.

'The special attention - and career prospects - ended when I told him I had a new boyfriend'

Made up of more than a thousand women working across the sector, from agencies to in-house staff, to people working in Parliament, our aim is to bring together women from across all areas of the public affairs industry and we run events which enable networking, build friendships and provide support, advice and training for women at all levels in the industry.

Our members tell us again and again how refreshingly comfortable it is to attend events where they aren’t one of only a few women in the room.

That word, 'comfortable', is telling. Surely comfort should not be a thing to be sought out, but to be expected?

The emphasis on networking and relationship building can lead to blurred lines, particularly when well lubricated with free-flowing, dodgy wine. In certain environments, such as the annual party conference season, this can create a situation that puts people at risk.

Laura Sainsbury, chair of Women in Public Affairs


Is sexual harassment more prevalent in public affairs than in other sectors?

We will shortly be undertaking our own research which should provide some interesting insights here but with the industry’s close links to Westminster, it is not hard to imagine that some of the less savoury behaviours occurring in the corridors of power have bled over into the industry.

The emphasis on networking and relationship-building can lead to blurred lines, particularly when well lubricated with free-flowing, dodgy wine.

In certain environments, such as the annual party conference season, this can create a situation that puts people at risk.

Beyond the unforgivable impact on the individuals that face harassment, the wider impact is damaging our industry’s reputation, preventing us attracting and retaining the best talent and limiting our ability to provide the best possible service to our clients.

If we want to be taken seriously, we need to address it proactively.

That means having frank conversations about the culture in the sector, how it affects working environments, where that culture comes from and how we address it.

It means pushing for a change in mindset amongst senior leaders across the sector.

It has, therefore, been brilliant to see the industry coming together to provide a proactive response through the creation of a working group and sanctions for inaction.

But we all need to take responsibility for recognising and acknowledging incidents and to listen and act accordingly.

Comfort is something everyone deserves in their workplace.

Laura Sainsbury is chair of Women in Public Affairs

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