Sexual harassment in the INGO sector

I wrote this last October for the Guardian but it wasn’t published in the end (combination of me not being sure of myself and them having other content). Out of date, I would say it differently now, and there may well be bits people want to debate. But here it is for those with 10 minutes to spare…


The Weinstein affair looks like it will be a watershed moment for addressing sexual harassment of women at work. Let’s hope so. In sector after sector stories are emerging and calls for zero tolerance growing stronger.


So what of the world of international development? Yes, it is a matter for us too. In the last few weeks, Facebook and Twitter have been full of #metoo from female colleagues in the sector. I worked in a large NGO where accusations of sexual harassment were an open secret.


The question that nags away at me is not why the men were doing what they were doing. That is depressingly obvious. Immature, selfish men were abusing the power they had over female colleagues. In explicitly feminist and rights-focused NGOs, this involves deliberate dissembling by men who profess to understand power relations and the feminist critique but who are blind to the power they wield in what they claim are consensual relationships. Well-read men who seem not to have read about the serious harm even “low-end” sexual harassment can have on women, especially younger women. Men who get the political but wilfully transgress the personal.


Harassment by “progressives” is a particularly offensive hypocrisy. And, yes, it makes me angry.


But it is not the question that nags at me most. What confuses me is how, over a period of years, otherwise bold campaigners for feminism and human rights, myself included, failed to effectively put an end to this inappropriate and damaging activity, and to protect women in our teams. What I remember most was the way we were drawn into a kind of conspiratorial silence.


Many did try to speak out. Women lodged complaints to HR; there were discussions in the pub. But the fact that the accused continued in post for some years while rumours swirled is testament to the fact that neither senior management nor any other coalition of internal activists successfully dealt with this blight. We all knew there was an issue (I had been warned even before applying for the job by friends in the sector), but we didn’t deal with it.

And perhaps the hypocrisy aspect is one of the clues to the silence. Exposing sexual harassment in an international NGO could bring discredit to someone who in many other aspects of his life is a good person, even a great person. Loyalty exists to such men, and it is understandable –judging a human soul is seldom black and white. Furthermore, should the issue go public there could be an impact on the whole organisation (in terms of income and influence) and even on the cause itself. In politics there are always enemies looking for chances to attack.


I call this the Elie Wiesel effect (and there are many other men who have done good but are guilty of sexual harassment). Is it beneath this cloak of a higher cause that men are more able to act freely in the NGO sector?


Yes, I think so, to some extent. But it still doesn’t explain the failure of so many people to act decisively. After all, most of these potentially negative consequences would only occur if the affair went public – it should be perfectly possible to deal swiftly with sexual harassment without involving the press.


Of course, we could say to ourselves that the stories seemed to be at the lower end of the harassment spectrum, and some female colleagues still take the side of the men involved. But that is not good enough. If there is lack of clarity, surely the right response is to investigate. We knew something was up, it was being talked about, it was affecting morale and therefore our ability to do our jobs well, not to mention persuading some possibly good candidates not to apply for jobs in an organisation where this kind of thing was going on.


So if it wasn’t the Elie Wiesel effect, and it wasn’t our uncertainty, why did we fail to act? I am afraid it comes down, as usual, to power and fear. If this had been a middle manager, I am sure they would have been called on it much sooner and dealt with. But the stories were about senior staff, highly regarded by the organisation’s leadership, wielding significant power.


For some of us, it was fear of confrontation – that moment of looking colleagues, even friends, in the eye and confronting sexual harassment head on.


But mostly it is fear about the impact on careers. Calling out people from the other side of the political spectrum or in another industry has no impact on your career as a campaigner – in fact, it may enhance it. But calling out people close by, with contacts in all the right places, and links to major funders, could make a material difference.


Clearly, directors and trustees across the sector need to do much better. Not acting on this kind of thing is grossly negligent, and not knowing is almost as bad. Leaders need to be active in pursuing this problem, not passive and surprised. An organisation has to be the change it wants to see. The public understands that good institutions have imperfect employees, but they don’t understand a failure to deal with them.


And procedures need to be updated. In my various management jobs, it has always been obvious to me that intimate relationships with people I manage or colleagues from partner organisations over whom I have some modicum of influence would be inappropriate, but I can’t recall anyone actually telling me so. A generous interpretation of boorish masculine behaviour is that some men may not know the boundaries of the unacceptable. Less generously, and more probably, they suppress that knowledge for their own convenience. Either way, let’s make it explicit (as I understand, from discussions with contacts, it already is in some companies).


Ultimately, though, in my view, and from my experience, it will always come down to us. Not the victim, who we know may have good reason not to complain. Not the leadership, because we cannot wait to know what incentives are driving their decisions. But the caring colleague and witness.


In my case, after six months in the job I was ready to resign and had told some colleagues of my intentions. For me personally, it felt beneath my dignity to continue in an organisation where this kind of omerta was considered part of the job, and I was experienced enough to know I could find other work.


But I am still disappointed with myself for not acting more swiftly. I think it was the affected women who, in the end, succeeded in persuading a reticent management to act.

What can we do next time to act faster, more boldly? Don’t hesitate, investigate. Take responsibility for your colleagues – don’t wait for others to do so. See it through. Raise it directly with the accused. Be a bit more vigilant, even vigilante – we know that there are horror stories about revenge being taken out on employees that challenge abuse, so maybe form a group and hold firm together. And the threat of going public does, unfortunately, need to be there when institutions are slow to act.


Loyalty is powerful, and so is fear. But when we work for organisations striving for a great purpose, our obligation to side with the victims cannot be balanced against a higher cause, or we will let both down. The Weinstein moment has taught us, I hope, that our first loyalty should be to victims of harassment – and we should find the courage to speak out.

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