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Westminster can learn from the history of women in Whitehall

The way harassment is dealt with in Whitehall has changed significantly in the last 30 years – particularly the culture that said you just had to put up with it, says Dr Catherine Haddon.

One of the most revealing comments about Michael Fallon’s resignation as Defence Secretary came from Fallon himself, when he said: “The culture has changed over the years, what might have been acceptable 15, 10 years ago is clearly not acceptable now.”

Well, no. It wasn’t acceptable then either. Not for many of the women and men who experienced discrimination or harassment.

In our history of women in Whitehall, we include accounts of the civil service from the perspective of women, intended to compensate for histories that tend to focus on men (who generally reached the higher echelons). But the research also allowed us to explore the subtleties of discrimination and how a dominant culture hampers change.

We were given many examples of discrimination: toward women who had children (and those who might in the future); bosses who didn’t promote women; fears that placing women in key jobs would lead to scandals (because men might not be able to stop themselves from wanting to sleep with them).

But in asking about discrimination, we were also told about harassment.

One woman told us about a problem she had with her line manager. Her colleagues said: “Oh yeah, he does that to everybody.” She laughed it off at the time but wouldn’t now. So yes, something has changed, but it isn’t her feeling that was wrong back then – it is the culture that said you just had to put up with it.

We heard other stories – most didn’t make it into the report – mostly from the 1960s to 1990s: unwelcome advances at office parties; who to avoid being alone with. The recollections of these women weren’t that these actions were ok back then, it was that it wasn’t ok to make a fuss.  

The account of Margaret Aldred, who worked in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) from the mid-1970s, suggests maybe Fallon is right that, for many in the department, such behaviour was once acceptable. But it wasn’t for her. She describes MoD in 1975 as a place where “institutional sexism bordering on sexual harassment was the norm”. She also describes how slow it was to change and that she left because she wanted to work somewhere where she was treated as “normal’’.

Whitehall has done a lot to change and the new Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson can learn a lot from his own department’s efforts to tackle that culture. Starting with the assumption that sexual harassment is not something that has recently become unacceptable is a good first step.

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