Why a culture change is a necessary pre-requisite to gender balance

I’m glad to be in a party where sexual harassment is taken seriously, and I don’t doubt that everybody has good intentions.  Let me explain why that isn’t nearly enough.

A man walks into a bar.  He buys a drink.  He chats with a friend about the policy debate they’ve both come from, and they have a lively disagreement.  He contemplates getting food.  He gets talking to a young woman who he finds attractive, but she doesn’t seem interested so he doesn’t push it.  He gets another drink.

A woman walks into the same bar.  A strange man twice her age hits on her.  She goes up to the bar to buy a drink, where a man she kind-of-knows hits on her.  She’s talking to her friend about a policy debate, and another man she’s never met comes up, joins in the debate in an extraordinarily condescending manner, and she can’t quite tell if he’s hitting on her but she wishes he would take the hint and leave.  She goes back up to the bar, where a drunk stranger makes a pass at her.

Even though the man I’ve described and those like him have done nothing wrong per se, the overall effect is that the woman has a miserable evening. She goes home disheartened, despite not having any one incident that she can point to and say, “This is what made me feel unwelcome.”

It’s possible to create an environment that is hostile and unpleasant for young women without any sexual assault, harassment, or rape.  Relying on criminal and disciplinary proceedings to make the party a more accessible place for women is only a very small part of what needs to be done.

I’m glad Sal Brinton responded to the personal experiences shared by impressive speakers on both sides of the debate on All-Women Shortlists last weekend, and I’m glad she has an action plan to tackle harassment.  But I’m not happy that she seems to have framed this as an entirely disciplinary issue, where the onus is on victims to come forward and help to root out the bad apples in the party.

No woman is going to the police over a handful of incurable optimists, or someone being a bit condescending.  But she might well decide that the party is not for her, or that she doesn’t want to stand for Parliament after all.

The reality is that we need a culture change in the party.  Steps absolutely need to be taken to address sexual harassment and assault, and I hope the party’s processes for dealing with this can be strengthened.  This is a necessary but not sufficient component of improving gender balance at every level of our party.  We also need genuine cultural change; women (and especially young women) need to be treated with dignity and respect as a matter of course.

I don’t have all the answers. I just hope that the action on gender balance in this party doesn’t become this strange lopsided attempt where we have all-women shortlists at one end and ‘kicking out convicted rapists’ on the other, without taking any action to address the low-level undermining that women face on a regular basis in this party. Changing the culture of any organisation is hard, especially one that is geographically dispersed, fuelled by volunteers and full of opinionated people who are somewhat set in their ways. It’s an enormous challenge that we face, but we must meet it head on if we are ever to tackle gender balance in our party.

Note: I have very specifically focused on women here, and dealt with only a handful of issues faced by women.  There are of course many other cultural problems which create barriers for other under-represented groups, men get harassed too, etc.

* Rachel is a party member in London and Vice-Chair (Membership) of Liberal Youth England on a jobshare, and she sits on the board of Liberal Reform.

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  • Could we have a definition of “hits on her” please?

  • Robert Mason 17th Mar '16 - 10:00am

    Observationally, condescension is not explicitly the domain of men, nor is the business of politics only talking to people you want to talk to.

    Framing the discussion about the broader behaviour of people to each other [though there is a very needed conversation that is barely heard in Westminster about ministerial behaviour] and mixing that up with direct, unwarranted, unwelcome sexually motivated actions of one person to another (of any sex or orientation) is perhaps unhelpful. None-the-less I have some sympathy with the feelings of the lady in this example who returns home disheartened because someone somewhere said something that we belittled someone or made them feel ignorant… I’m sure many of us can relate to that experience even without the sexual harassment overtone.

  • “Steps absolutely need to be taken to address sexual harassment and assault”

    Agree entirely. Do you therefore imply that the scenario you set out in your introductory paragraphs is either of those things? Definitions of ‘hits on’ and ‘pass’ would indeed help.

    By extension, are we looking at a future where only women can make a ‘pass’ or ‘hit on’ a man, not vice versa? Or would men take such approaches askance, too. Perhaps, in the era where online ‘dating’ means engagement in ‘hits’ and ‘passes’ can be entirely voluntary and removed from real-life settings, we are.

  • Mike MacSween 17th Mar '16 - 10:16am

    Two possible scenarios:

    1. A middle aged man in a position of seniority and power is with a mixed gender group of young people. He approaches them individually to greet them. He holds out his hand to shake the hands of the young men, and does the same with the young women.

    2. Another middle aged man in the same situation. He approaches the same young people individually to greet them. He holds out his hand to shake the hands of the young men, but with the young women he engages them in a loose embrace, and kisses them on the cheek (or perhaps feigns a kiss on the cheek).

    Scenario 1 is me saying goodbye to my year 13 pupils at school. I shake the girls’ hands.

    Scenario 2 – did anybody witness that at conference this year? I did. In fact involving a young woman of the same age as my year 13 peoples, if I remember correctly.

    Personal interaction and the physical boundaries, or lack of, are gendered. Because I teach in a girls school (with a partner boys school) I am sensitive to those issues.

    It would help if people were more aware of those differences and those boundaries. For all the talk of unconscious bias I saw a blatant difference in personal interaction, and it was gendered.

  • nigel hunter 17th Mar '16 - 10:43am

    Hits on her? Is this the modern take on the old ‘chat up’ line where male and female were treated differently. Today the young need respect, they are the parties future Women are now near equal to men., a handshake for male and female is correct, respect for the future. Us oldsters do have to make way to exuberance new ideas people who know what today is like We oldsters should get to know today’s ways and learn. In my 60’s, ex Youth and Community Worker’

  • Oh dear

  • Thank you for writing this, Rachel. It’s important that someone said this.

    Keith, I’m not sure “hitting on” can be adequately defined as it’s going to be at least partly subjective (comments, behaviour, body language that lead one person to suspect the other is interested in them would cover it for me, but I’d be interested to hear others’ thoughts). But unsolicited “hitting on” can be extremely awkward-making if it’s not reciprocated, and particularly if the person being hit on knows nothing else about the person making them. I’ve been struggling with how to properly express my own thoughts on the subject, but the thrust of my thinking is that unsolicited “hitting on” others is colossally impolite. No-one has a god-given right to make advances on anyone else out of the blue and expect anything whatsoever for their trouble other than a reasonable likelihood that they’ll make the recipient feel awkward at best and scared at worst. When it’s a man hitting on a woman, it’s much more likely to be the latter. As a rule I’d much rather question the right of the person doing the ‘hitting on’ to do that in the first place, than the right of the person being ‘hit on’ to react in any particular way that wasn’t illegal.

    And Mike, you’re spot on about interaction and physical boundaries. That’s an excellent point.

  • So, John Grout, what does one do to ‘solicit’ hitting-on?

  • David – Honestly, I’m not an expert. Perhaps ‘unsolicited’ was the wrong word. But my point is that being hit on out of the blue, particularly by a stranger, can lead to the situations I described. And my further point was that part of the culture change Rachel calls for – which I think is indeed needed – involves making it clear that hitting on people, making advances (whatever you want to call it), is mostly not an okay thing to do to, particularly if it makes the person uncomfortable or worse. I’d say establishing a rapport and that the other person is comfortable in one’s presence is essential, and it’s my experience that the person doing the ‘hitting’ as it were is usually colossally overoptimistic in this regard. But as I said, I’m really, really, not an expert. As I said, I struggled with appropriately phrasing my thoughts on the subject.

    On a related note, there is an undercurrent of entitlement to some of the hitting-on I’ve seen going on (not all, by any means, but enough to make it noticeable). That’s the really objectionable part, for me at least.

  • Thanks, John. I wonder, perhaps, if people in long-term relationships on this thread/board might case to share whether, in the meeting of their partner, any ‘hitting-on’ of any sort by one on another was involved? Or did they, perhaps, get together either by Tinder or telepathy, as these seem plausible alternatives.

    I will “confess” (and that is how it feels!) that, yes, I chatted up (old-speak) my now-wife (15 years wed, three children, very happy thank you), who I had never met before, in a work-derived social situation (there was no power/seniority relationship between us). I believe that such activity used to be not uncommon and in many cases will be the reason that we are here today typing at our screens.

    Are we, perhaps, becoming slightly hysterical?

  • Well, I met my significant other of 18 months online via a dating app, so there we are. 😉

    That’s a fair point, and I really think it comes down to how one defines ‘hitting on’ (which is always going to be subjective – part of the issue is that in situations like this, the subjective feeling of the person being hit on is actually far more important than the intent of the person making the advance in the first place).

    I don’t think it’s hysterical to point out that situations like the one Rachel describes above (and which I more hamfistedly allude to) are problematic. A friend of mine recently posted on social media about various forms of unwarranted attention (some of it actual harassment) she’d received on a single Tube journey. It prompted me to gently ask some of my female friends about their experiences, and the sheer quantity of it they’d all experience really floored me. I’ve since noticed that frequently in online discussions about this sort of thing, most of the agreement, sympathy and relating comes from women, and most of the incredulity and/or indignation comes from men. I honestly don’t think most of us blokes are remotely conscious of the prevalence of the kind of ‘woman at conference bar’ scenarios that Rachel describes, or of the fact that it probably happens or has happened to all of the women we care about or have ever cared about. As guy who’s mainly interested in guys I’ve experienced a little of that kind of behaviour from time to time, but I suspect it pales in comparison.

    Ultimately, I don’t think there’s an intent to wipe out courtship or anything like that – just a drive to make the default dynamic a bit more equal and a bit more empathetic, as it’s clear that there’s currently a rather large gap in that department. 🙂

  • The undertone of this article is deeply troubling. As a man recently retired, I often go out for a bit of lunch with my father who is almost 90. Whilst out and about, it is noticeable that my father is happy to interact and engage in a very social way with everyone, and especially a smiling child or toddler who shows signs of wishing to socially engage. All very harmless and frankly natural (30 years ago). However, I almost never interact with a young child or toddler who I don’t know, and certainly not with a young mother. Twenty-five years ago, I used to be very sociable with women and children, pretty much like my father still does today.
    Who is right, my father or me?
    Have I been suitably trained by two decades of society telling me that I am potentially a threat to women and children, and is society now all the better for my withdrawal from casual harmless social interaction with women and children that I don’t know? I am deeply serious, when I say, that at 61 years old it occurs to me that as an otherwise educated and articulate man I in all likelihood, still do not know the subtle differences between socially engaging banter and the horrifying possibility, that my words might be received by a woman as offensive.?
    It’s too late to teach my father the ‘new ways’. But is there any hope for me? Is there a book I can buy to improve my re-training,… a book that will give me and many other men, clues as to what kind of conversation is and is not appropriate to relate with a woman in a social transactions? Or should I as a man simply ‘pack my bags’, and withdraw from social interaction with women entirely because they might feel my very presence to be potentially harmful?
    Help needed please?

  • Good article. Shame about the comments section.

    YET AGAIN lots of men and no women commenting on a thread about women’s experiences.

    And YET AGAIN if a woman can’t specifically define EXACTLY how to spot a pattern of behaviour and EXACTLY when it is and isn’t OK taking into account every single person’s individual experiences to the contrary then her point has no value. Objecting to drunk guys lurching up to you at a bar and trying to monopolize your conversation and touching your arm or your shoulder or standing too close or leaning in or whatever, when clearly you’re talking to someone else and haven’t shown any interest in talking to them and are leaning away, backing away, and generally trying to politely escape doesn’t constitute an attack on all dating ever and certainly not to your marriage.

  • Laura – apologies if any of my comments gave that impression. I agree with you 100%.

  • Thank you for the article Rachel. I wish I had some answers for you. The world has changed so much for women in so many ways and hardly at all in others.

    For example, the Chancellor used the word tampon on Radio 4 this morning. When I went to convent school 35 years ago even female teachers would not have use such a word. They hinted darkly about “the curse” if they referred to periods at all.

    On the other hand there is a man posting on LDV at the moment who has been intimidating people (in a non handsy but sexist way) for years and will doubtless continue.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Mar '16 - 12:27pm

    I think this is a useful article and for the first time can say I’m guilty of some of these behaviours, such as making unwanted advances, but not at any official events. I’m not a member, but when on a night out I should stop making advances without having received a sign of interest first. I usually follow this rule, but when I’m drunk it often goes out the window.

    So yes, a good article and emphasises why it is not just criminal behaviour that needs challenging. It shouldn’t take an article to make me realise, but it often helps.

  • J Dunn. I sympathise. I think with most women: be polite, respectful and don’t be a boor will do. I suggest avoiding women in the Party altogether to he on the safe side. You should be fine that way.

  • Liberal Neil 17th Mar '16 - 1:56pm

    Great article Rachel.

    In particular I think the point that the party needs to look at how to tackle inappropriate behaviour generally, and not just deal with it through a disciplinary approach, is crucial.

  • David Evans 17th Mar '16 - 2:03pm

    Sad to see that another article on gender balance uses terms that are so ill defined as to make it meaningless to the average person, and that despite three requests for explanation, nothing is forthcoming from the author. In addition, Laura seems to think it is acceptable to use capital letters (i.e. shout in internet parlance) at men for asking. Sadly I know who is spoiling the day for many on this forum and making people disheartened, and it isn’t men asking for clarification.

  • Alex Macfie 17th Mar '16 - 2:04pm

    @David: Such activity (chatting up in real life (IRL)) is perfectly common-place now as well. As well as this, respect for boundaries is an issue in online social interaction at least as much as it is IRL. For an example, look at the twitterstorm between Charlotte Proudman and a male fellow lawyer twice her age from last Autumn — started by his “stunning picture” message to her on LinkedIn.

  • Great article – I find it hard to believe men (of which I am one) need some express guide to tell us the difference between a normal conversation and attempting to instigate something more!

    Pro Tip – you can talk to women (and children – or anyone else for that matter) as long as you do so appropriately! It’s not particularly hard (despite what Richard Littlejohn or curiously Lib Dem Voice commentators might say)!

  • I don’t know why it’s so difficult to comprehend. No one is saying you have to tip toe around women, just be mindful of the scenario you are interacting in. Yes there is a social side to politics but you’re at a political conference. A handshake is perfectly fine as a greeting. Being professional is the key.

    You are not there just to ‘pull’. Have a genuine and plutonic conversation. If any ‘sparks’ are there it would soon be obvious without overstepping any boundaries.

    Also pay attention to your position. If you are much older or hold some clout in the party, be extra mindful of how you’re coming across to people. Introduce yourself but don’t rudely barge in on conversations. Exchange emails rather than trying to add someone you barely know on facebook as a first form of contact, unless they’re clearly happy to communicate that way. Little things like that make all the difference.

  • A man walks into a bar.Oops iron bar.

    Become a teetotaler, save money,your health, and a lot of trouble.

  • David wrote: I wonder, perhaps, if people in long-term relationships on this thread/board might case to share whether, in the meeting of their partner, any ‘hitting-on’ of any sort by one on another was involved? Or did they, perhaps, get together either by Tinder or telepathy, as these seem plausible alternatives.

    Ok, I’ll go first. I met my wife of nearly 10 years at work and I asked her out. Of course as a respectable girl, the first time she said no and then a couple of weeks later I tried again and she said yes. This was not in the UK, of course.

    You rightly point out that the definition of “hitting on” someone given above seems to be the same as a sensible definition of “soliciting” someone to hit on them and therefore it must always start with an unsolicited “hit-on”.

    People here won’t be able to tell you the actual rules of behaviour because they are not gender-symmetrical and therefore thoughtcrime but generally the woman sends the first signals and they are very subtle. As someone with Aspergers I used to have big trouble reading them (I erred on the side of assuming women weren’t interested though so stayed out of trouble). If I hadn’t gone abroad where behaviour is less subtle probably I would still be single.

  • To add to the above. If we are going to say that people should basically not try to pair up at work, in education or even in connection with a shared-interest hobby like politics, you pretty much leave young people with what my evangelical Christian uni housemates referred to as the “meat-market” of the local disco, or the profile pics on dating websites. If you leave just those two options then please don’t be surprised when your single teenage kids have body-image problems.

    Of course sexual harassment is wrong, but language that assumes any kind of “soliciting” is harassment until retrospectively legitimised by the other person is not a basis for proper guidelines of behaviour between the sexes*.

    * or members of the same sex, I’ve phrased my posts as about men and women because that’s what I know about and I don’t want to make speculations about other groups of people but if what I’ve written makes sense in other contexts too then that’s great.

  • Barry Snelson 17th Mar '16 - 6:33pm

    The only way forward is to follow the path already taken by most modern companies.
    I’ve made this point on the op-ed from Sal Brinton. The party needs a modern culture and you can’t just “get” a culture you have to build it through lots of consistent actions.
    There has to be, sternly directed from the top, a no touching and no flirting rule.
    All the hugging and kissing and arm squeezing has long disappeared from the modern workplace. The formal handshake is the only physical contact you ever see.
    So the message must be stop the hugs and kisses – I know many will say these expressions of friendship are fine. No they are not. The atmosphere must be professional and businesslike and the offensive propositioning that Rachel complains about will not survive the cold.
    I expect push back but it’s the way the world has gone and the party must go too.
    Long, long ago the Christmas party was much anticipated and long remembered. but now the best you get is a pizza and cheap cracker in some nameless Italian. The conversation will be the politest of small talk but that’s the modern world. No touching. No flirting. Professional interactions only.

  • Cllr Wright, I suspect you are right and do too is Barry Snelson. However, isn’t one of the reasons people join political parties to socialise with like minded souls? Not sure the joyless scenarios you paint will attract or retain many beyond the grimly focussed brigade

  • Barry Snelson 17th Mar '16 - 6:54pm

    But David, what culture do you want? The females are complaining that many males regard the Party’s functions as dating opportunities. You can’t have a culture that allows any space for that attitude at all or face the consequences of continuing complaints.
    The modern world doesn’t seem as relaxed and fun as the one of my youth but it’s what it is.

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 17th Mar '16 - 7:03pm

    So I read the article, and feel happy that somebody else is speaking about a problem I have. I read the comments and realise this party is even more full of entitled men than my own personal experience has shown me. (And the only one who apologises for having offended is the one that hasn’t).
    It was noticeable that after the Amy Stuart’s speech at conference there were expressions of shock by some at her experiences. None of the people shocked were young women. We are all more than used to the sort of everyday sexism but doesn’t quite constitute sexual harassment but also doesn’t make us feel welcome and respected. I almost left the party after a man I saw as a mentor, married like me, tried to wrap his arms around me and kiss me and told me how he’d always found me to be so wonderfully attractive. I don’t want older, more powerful men in our party to be telling me that they find me attractive. I want them to tell me they always found me to be so intelligent, so capable. I don’t want them to ask me if I’d like to have an affair with them, I want them to ask me if I’d consider standing for election (I wont, but it’s nice to be asked)

  • I’m sure you’re right, Barry. Do tell Ros Scott and Mark Valladares off, won’t you? Or any of the many other couples I’m sure we know who met through the Party. When we perfect OMOV online we won’t need any meetings and that should solve the problem, shouldn’t it?

  • Barry Snelson 17th Mar '16 - 8:20pm

    Miserable and humourless though it sounds, I actually am right. It’s of no value to point to an ‘interaction’ that was welcomed and led to a happy ending. Female after female are here complaining about the number of unsuccessful and unwelcome ‘interactions’ and they have to be listened to.
    If you notice this physical contact is an older generation thing. It is the older (woman often) who greets with an embrace and kiss. The younger generation seem to stand well back in their own space and we have to respect that.
    I call upon all those who think a hug is still OK as a greeting to think again. Stick to a formal handshake. You can change the culture yourselves by your obvious actions.

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 17th Mar '16 - 8:45pm

    David- just because you got joy out of a world where it was ok to chat up women in professional situations didn’t mean women always did. Yes, some interactions were welcome – I’ve had relationships in the past with people I met through work. But many many more of the interactions I had with men at work related events left me feeling like someone who was only valued for her looks or breasts.
    I don’t have a problem with physical interaction with men (or women) , sexual or otherwise, when it’s a mutual thing. But far too often it’s something men do to women, which comes from a mindset of men having dominion over our bodies and is not feeling we can change that. It starts with us being told we are unfriendly for not accepting a hug, it ends with rape culture. And whilst yes it’s a big jump from one to the other it is all part of the same entitlement issue. But my generation onwards are changing that. In the words of that amazing feminist Vivian Ward “I say who, I say when, I say how much”

  • Context is everything and I don’t understand why so many people (mostly men) struggle with it.

    I will attempt a quick but imperfect definition of “hitting on” that might serve men well well when attending a political party conference:

    You are in the bar after a conference session and engage in conversation with a mixed group of other people about the issues of the day. If you say something or do something to a women that you would not dream of saying or doing to a man in the same group at the same time, e.g. you feel the sudden urge to compliment her on her appearance, or put your arm round her, then that is an example of “hitting on”. So don’t do it. Doubly so if you are significantly older than her, and triply so if you are older AND hold some sort of senior poisition within the party.

  • Mark – yes I know, but only to friends you already know well. Would you put your arm around another man you only just met at a party conference?

    If the answer is yes, I would argue that is just as inappropriate as doing it to a women you only just met.

    We should all respect each others personal space until such time as we have earned enough trust to be welcomed into it.

  • John Barrett 17th Mar '16 - 9:43pm

    Reading through the comments above, after many decades of attending conferences I am really glad I decided not to go to York this year.

    I watched the diversity and AWS debate online and was shocked at what some party members have experienced in my party. It made me wonder if I am now a member of a party with many dysfunctional people in it. (Not those who were speaking, but those who behaved in the way many spoke of). Or, if a few out of the thousands of members had in fact caused most of the damage. I do not know.

    There must be a better future for those joining the party other than the “miserable and humourless” one described by Barry Snelson. I have met some excellent lifelong friends in the party and meeting new people at conferences was in the past always an enjoyable aspect of party membership and attending conference. Sadly this is not what many others today have experienced.

    I can remember when approaching complete strangers in a pub or a club, being optimistic about the outcome, but being prepared for a ‘knock-back’ was part of everyday life. I also accepted then and do so now, that at no time should anyone behave in the way which has caused such a wide range of concerns being discussed here.

    Canvassing for the party over many decades has also involved approaching complete strangers, being optimistic about the outcome, but being prepared for a knock-back too.

    There is a way of approaching strangers, meeting new people, speaking to them for the first time and parting with no ill feeling on either side and sometimes it is the start of a friendship, or more, or even a party membership. Under no circumstances should that first meeting result in the experiences many have detailed.

    Never at any time should anyone feel anything less than being completely at ease and relaxed at Lib-Dem events and in the company of Liberal Democrats.

    But, we cannot go down the road of thinking that the party is an organisation capable or willing to try to regulate what complete strangers meeting for the first time might say to each other or how they might behave.

    We should remember that simply being polite, respecting everyone equally, treating others as you would like to be treated yourself, accepting that we are all very different individuals and a degree of common sense, could avoid most if not all unacceptable behaviour by many party members – often older men – but not exclusively older, or men.

  • Barry Snelson 17th Mar '16 - 9:43pm

    The message has to be – “Don’t join the Lib Dems looking for romance (on a temporary or permanent basis)!”
    This party has already had a terrible media bruising over sexual predation by older men. It must change its culture before it becomes tabloid fodder again.
    Stop the hugs and kisses. Stop the touching. Interactions must be professional, businesslike, formal and sober.
    I am shocked at some of the old fashioned attitudes from some of the males on this blog. Some talk like Benny Hill.
    A clear sign that times have changed is the very terms used. When I asked a girl if she wanted to watch ‘Dr No’ together it was called ‘chatting up’. Now the term is ‘hitting on’ – it’s almost classified as assault no matter what is said.

  • Well, I only asked for a definition. Perhaps I should have asked for a translation; “chatting up” is the best I have been offered. At what point does a friendly conversation become “hitting on”? Don’t people these days exchange subtle signals before putting the situation into words? Is it only men who make that transition?

    Doesn’t anyone relax any more in this party?

  • The overwhelming reaction here seems to be of mainly straight men wondering what on earth they personally have done to offend mainly women, and whatever the world will be coming to when they aren’t allowed to say something nice out of the blue to a woman from time to time? (with an extra undercurrent of wondering how on earth to possibly interact with women without being able to hit on them).

    If that summary gets up your nose, then scroll up and read Mary Regnier-Wilson’s comments again. And again. And again. And again. And again.

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 17th Mar '16 - 10:32pm

    No Keith. In the company of certain men I don’t relax anymore. In the company of other men I find it very easy. Men who need a definition of “hitting on” tend to be in the first category. But just for you, things that have happened to me at Lib Dem events which I would class as inappropriate included the man who continually haragued me to sing during glee club despite me acting cooly towards him during dinner beforehand. The man who stood behind me at a bar doing thrusting motions with his pelvis, the very drunk man who kept trying to start a conversation with me (whilst closely peering down my shirt) despite me answering his every question with a monsyllable and then turning away (eventually I told him I’d be more willing to talk if he removed himself from my personal space and he told me off for being unfriendly).
    “Can I get you a drink” does not constitute a “hit” IMO – it’s a polite enquiry. When a polite no thanks is not accepted the line starts to be crossed. “I really liked your facebook post about x” is fine, “I really like your facebook photo” is not.
    But you know what’s almost as bad as the everyday sexism women experience, well, everyday? The victim blaming that eventually leads to “she was asking for it”. The demand for victims to solve the problem themselves by “speaking out” rather than a demnad for the culprits to stop being idiots. And when we do speak out, the refusal of some to accept that what we say happens , and that it makes us feel like crap. The occassional sexist idiot I can deal with perfectly well, the sexist attitude of a larger group within the party is more difficult to cope with

  • @John Grout

    I disagree. I think the overwhelming reaction is of men horrified at the inappropriate actions of what is hopefully a small minority of other men.

    No one is saying men can’t say something nice about women, but the when, where and how is important. So, if you are at home with your wife then it’s entirely appropriate.

    But if you meet a woman for the first time at a party conference and your first reaction is to compliment her on her appearance, rather than for her insightful contribution to the debate, then there is a problem because that is objectifying her.

    And when I say “you”, I don’t mean you personally….

  • John Barrett 18th Mar '16 - 9:03am

    Nick Baird – “No one is saying men can’t say something nice about women, but the when, where and how is important”

    How true.

    Conference bars are always busy late at night and some people, when they have had a drink, also think they are being funny…………. when in fact they are being obnoxious.

  • Phil Culmer 18th Mar '16 - 9:04am

    I hope this does not need to be said by someone with a Y chromosome to get any attention from those with the same qualification, but Mary’s post sums up a lot of what the problem is.

    Whilst not in a position to say from experience, I suspect that people on the receiving end of “expressions of interest” would be a lot more comfortable with them if experience had not taught them that they were likely to be “expressions of intent” from people who would take offence at them being declined. The ball for doing anything about that situation is squarely in the court of those making the expressions – us.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 18th Mar '16 - 9:52am

    Reading some of the comments in here makes you realise what a long way we have to go to drag some elements of this party into the modern age.

    It really isn’t that difficult. If you value everyone as equals, you will treat them accordingly. If you think that women are playthings there for your entertainment, you will have a sense of entitlement that you can do and say what you like and how dare they not like it. That’s what’s coming across from people like Keith Watts, John Dunn and David.

    While we’re at it, one thing that constantly makes young women particularly in the party feel uncomfortable is repeated social media friend requests or messages from men twice their age. They receive a request, they delete it, they then get another one from the same person and another. If people don’t want to be your friend, don’t keep asking. There is one senior person in the party who should know better who is notorious for doing this.

    A general rule of thumb is that if you are a middle aged man, a young woman is most unlikely to be interested in you getting in their personal space, putting your arm round them, telling them how pretty they are, being your friend on Facebook, swapping flirty messages with you on social media or anything other than being party colleagues working on the same campaign. If you persist in trying to do all of these things, they will think you are a creep. You may not think you are a creep, but, do you know what, you are.

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson, you are a heroine. Thank you for all your comments above.

  • “There is one senior person in the party who should know better who is notorious for doing this.”

    Only one? Mind you, having said that, there’s only one I’ve had to block on all forms of social media (and I don’t count myself as a Young Person these days, but you know) because BOY is he persistent… But we can’t mention HIS name in public because he’ll threaten to sue.

  • While the original poster has not returned, we can all enjoy her most recent Tweet, copied verbatim below:

    “It’s Raining Men is such an unrealistic song. As if every situation in life didn’t already feature way more men than anyone asked for”

    A view which it seems many other commentators on the thread would applaud, especially in respect of the Party.

  • David – indeed. I must admit I have never come across a canvassing session that featured “way more men than anyone asked for” – or women for that matter.

  • Barry Snelson 18th Mar '16 - 11:36am

    The females across this party seem unanimous in wanting the flirting and ‘romantic’ approaches to stop and the males must listen to them. It is only through the creation of a welcoming and non-threatening culture will the females ever be persuaded to stay.
    But to create a new culture actions have to be taken, things have to be done, unmistakeable signals must be sent out and clear guidelines set. Just the occasional moan and hoping for the best won’t cut it.
    The best way to deal with this well known creep is to make a public example of him through the females establishing some private whistle blowing network between themselves and recording diligently times and dates. It sounds deliberate and it is but any employer who wants to get rid of an employee quietly builds up a documentation trail first.
    Secondly there has to be a no touching rule on ‘Company’ premises or at ‘Company’ sponsored social events.
    This includes all embracing and even the older lady who can’t seem to talk to a man without squeezing his forearm needs to play to new rules.
    If you think this sounds odd go into any Footsie 100 company and count how many times you see the staff hugging each other. One poster said that Conference had a reputation as a ‘knocking shop’ What!? That sort of badly behaved binge died out in the last century at any serious corporation. Social events have to be seen as networking opportunities and not for boozing and dating.
    This is not a mischievous observation but I sort of detect an older generation who see the Party as something of a social club with a political theme and a younger one who are more professional, businesslike, clear-eyed, mission focussed, idealistic and who have a serious political ambition and want a leadership who will take them there.

  • Liberal Neil 18th Mar '16 - 12:00pm

    I agree with @liz, @mary, @Caron, @Jennie and @nick.

    It really isn’t that difficult to behave appropriately at a political conference or event.

    If you’re not sure something is inappropriate just err on the side of caution.

    For most people their primary motivation for going to party conference is for the politics, not hooking up.

  • Barry. There is one reference to ‘knocking shop’ on this thread and that is in your post. Enough with the ad hominems.

  • Barry Snelson 18th Mar '16 - 12:52pm

    It was on the Sal Brinton op-ed (on exactly the same topic). Posted by a “Tracy Connell”.

  • Alex Macfie 18th Mar '16 - 2:05pm

    I didn’t want to be yet another male commenter on this thread, but I do want to say I’m with Neil and the female commenters.

    I do not understand the trouble that certain male commenters here have over interaction with women. No-one is talking about “replacing face-to-face chatting-up with impersonal dating websites” (and incidentally, harassment and sexism on these, and online generally, is just as much of a problem as it is face-to-face; perhaps more, precisely because of the “impersonal” nature of the interaction). Nor is anyone saying that “people should basically not try to pair up at work, in education or … politics.” There is an obvious difference between how you talk to someone you don’t know well, to someone you know only professionally, and to a friend. I compliment female friends on their looks. But only in a way that’s appropriate and never suggestively. And only to friends who I know will take it as intended, and certainly never to anyone I’ve only just met. Actually I have mainly female friends, and my experience is that they *do* hug/embrace/lightly touch friends. But that’s the difference between interacting with someone you know as a friend, and someone you know professionally.

    I (a straight male) was twice propositioned at party Conference many years ago, by a much older bloke who I discovered had a reputation for that sort of thing. Nothing happened but he was extremely creepy (I don’t think it was a matter of faulty gaydar either — he apparently liked a challenge). Given what happened to him subsequently (what he did), I don’t think he’d be considered welcome in the party now. Or, at least, I hope not.

    The fact that these sort of unwanted advances seem to happen to a lot of women a lot of the time is disturbing, as is the fact that the man whom we’re not allowed to name but has been mentioned here is still around. He is the only Lib Dem who has sent me a Facebook friend request that I have rejected. Such behaviour will not help make people (women mainly) feel welcome at party Conference.

    I don’t go to Conference anymore, not because of the experience mentioned above, but principally because I found I’m just not good at the intense socialising it involves. (I recently discovered why that is: like another commenter here I have Aspergers). But it worries me if people would go but are put off by other people’s inappropriate behaviour, which is something we need to stop.

  • Alex Mc: you say ” Nor is anyone saying that “people should basically not try to pair up at work, in education or … politics.”

    Perhaps you’d like to talk to Barry: “Don’t join the Lib Dems looking for romance (on a temporary or permanent basis)!”

    Now, no-one should join us primarily to find a mate. Nor use social opportunities to become a sexual predator. But when some of us point out that it may so happen that one Lib Dem may find another previously un-met Lib Dem interesting and attractive and may wish to open a conversation with them, we are told: “no, can’t happen, the ‘females’ (what’s wrong with ‘women’, Barry?) won’t have it; stay at arms length; I talk to friends only (how did you make these friends by the way – did they, god forbid, talk to you?) away with you; who are you: Benny Hill?”

    Yes I get no drunks, yes I get no groping or touching, yes I get no old lechers, I get all of that. No issues. But the logic here leads to a very lifeless and grim organisation, much as Barry describes, founded firmly in a USA-style culture of litigation. I know that some applaud that. So happy I am not a Conference delegate and rarely attend at all. It sounds – from this and other topical threads – to have become a hideous, self obsessed, inward-looking victim-fest.

    To the relief of all, my last word.

  • Alex: welcome to the Aspie club. We have cookies (in many flavours and textures to cope with the sensory and habit issues that Aspie folk can have ;))

  • Jo Christie-Smith 18th Mar '16 - 5:17pm

    Well, the first time I met my husband was at a Lib Dem conference and we managed to have a conversation and even exchange contact details (he gave me his) and I did not have an inkling that he found me attractive (apparently it turns out he ddid) – in fact I thought he was more interested in getting me to stand in his non target list seat that no one else wanted to stand in. That’s because he spoke to me as if I was an equal human being, interested in my political views and experience etc, etc. Something amazingly enough he still seems interested in, even though we’ve been together for 9 years this year. He didn’t hit on me or chat me up or make me feel in anyway like an object – and that is, I think, an excellent approach to take in a political, work or social context! If I had never met him again I would still have been left with an entirely positive political conference type experience. No need to sound the death knell of those with shared interests finding romance together just treat them as an equal not an object.

  • James Brough 18th Mar '16 - 5:28pm

    I tried to post this once from my phone, which crashed, so apologies if a post to this effect appears twice…

    Every time a woman posts an article talking about being made uncomfortable by men’s behaviour, there’s a series of responses from men demanding precise instructions as to how they should behave and complaining that they are not allowed to talk to women and asking how they’re supposed to start a relationship, meet a partner etc.

    Well, over the last thirty years I’ve been able to have a series of romantic and sexual relationships by dint of getting to know people, becoming friends and, if it felt right, letting them know that I was attracted to them and giving them the option to reciprocate or not.

    If you seriously feel that the only way you can start a relationship is by approaching people who you barely know and risking making them feel uncomfortable, unhappy and threatened, then, frankly, you may be better off single.

  • Barry Snelson 18th Mar '16 - 5:39pm

    I want to part as friends! I have great sympathy for your perspective but the world has turned out the way it has and the problem is that one person’s idea of an innocent “wish to open a conversation” is manifestly not universally agreed.
    Or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
    The modern workplace may seem ‘grim’, and it is quite different to the workplaces of the 70’s (of my youth – and I could tell some tales!) but the process has been pretty successful in dramatically improving the presence and contribution of women (what’s wrong with “females”?) although equality is still a way off and I just call on this path to be followed by the party with hopefully the same benefits.

  • A shame original poster has not returned as rachel makes a very valuable point. I’m a socially awkward person, I never offer touching unless I know the person very well, or its offered. If I’m uncomfortable I raise my hand to shake. Men it’s not difficult, it’s a shame we have to explain this to the lib dems, i feel I’m in ukip sometimes! I often place mysel in others shoes to help understand their point of I have not got the argument at first, and If you did you would understand the issue here. It’s not about separating in to people who of same ages a genders, that’s never been the case, it’s all about treating everyone as equal. I want those new to, our party to be as confident as the veterans and us all to fight together. This won’t make conference uncomfortable at all. when people are shown respect a become friends you find the awkwardness goes a interacting of non or lots of affection is mutual.

  • Alex Macfie 18th Mar '16 - 6:53pm

    David: “Don’t join the Lib Dems looking for romance” is NOT the same thing as “people should basically not try to pair up”. Not that I call the behaviour that women are complaining about “romantic”. As seen in Jo Christie-Smith’s post, it is perfectly possible to get to know someone romantically without behaving in an inappropriate way. Generally the only thing that it makes sense to join specifically “looking for romance” is a singles/dating club. Anything else and you’re likely to have trouble. But it does not mean that romance cannot possibly happen at work, at uni or even in a political party. You evidently do not understand that no-one has a problem with talking to people they don’t know yet, but with doing so in an inappropriate way. So of course one makes friends by talking to people one doesn’t know at first.

    Jennie: Thanks! I find it ironic that in the above paragraph I as an Aspie am apparently explaining to a (presumed) NT how “getting to know people” works.

  • Ruth Coleman-Taylor 18th Mar '16 - 8:11pm

    I find it quite sad that we still need to talk about how men and women should behave towards each other. We were discussing this when I was a Young Liberal more than 40 years ago.
    My recollection of those discussions was that women and men should treat each other with respect. That’s what equals deserve. Respect includes not invading each other’s personal space. How big is someone else’s personal space? Probably just as big as yours. Think about how close someone can get to you without you feeling uncomfortable: I suggest that you don’t go any closer than that to another person unless you already know them well.

  • Alex: it’s not as unusual a thing as you might think 😉

  • I agree with all that. However, women often complain with reason that they’re ignored when they want to contribute to debate. This happens because of all sorts of things including conscious and unconscious sexism. But also:

    Man walks out of auditorium and into bar. He get drink. Woman he find attractive makes beeline for space next to him because it’s the only space where she can attract bar-person’s attention. She gets drink. Our man now has woman to one side of him, man to the other, and is eager to discuss the debate. He’s aware that woman may interpret him opening conversation as “hitting on her”, so talks to the other man instead.

  • Alex Macfie 19th Mar '16 - 5:39pm

    I’d be more likely to land up talking to the woman, but maybe that’s just because I’m more comfortable talking to women than to other men (whether or not I find the woman attractive). But I’m not good at talking to strangers generally, so most likely wouldn’t talk to either.

    I do not understand why a man would think a woman would interpret just opening conversation as “hitting on her”. If it did feel like that to her, then there was probably something in his body language, or how he was looking at her, that made her uncomfortable.

  • A big part of the solution seems to be to make the bar at the conference venue dry – in other words the venue is told that it should be run as a “cafe” rather than a bar for the duration of conference.

    Any men (and women) who want to go to the pub across the road for what we are led to believe is the traditional conference drunken debauchery would then be able to do this without offending anyone anyone – whether that means pairing up for a life relationship or a relationship with an age difference or even just a quickie with someone else’s husband (shock-horror).

    As for the role of powerful men in the national party structure – making sure that only local parties have any say in who their candidates are would seem to nip that in the bud – because then these men simply cease to have power over potential female MPs.

  • David Allen 20th Mar '16 - 7:45pm

    Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear… Mark Wright said:

    “The young generation is creating a new set of social norms for themselves… With dating websites, there is no need for unsolicited advances… the younger generation is moving to a dynamic where unsolicited *approaches* will be considered socially inappropriate.”

    Woe betide all young people who aren’t physically attractive enough to get an immediate swipe-right from anyone, then! Woe betide anyone who can’t write good advertising copy about themselves. Woe betide the humble. Woe betide the slow-burn conversationalists. Their genes can just die out. We will have survival of the fittest – fittest, that is, to win a dating competition in cyberspace. Humanity, who needs it?

    * NB, I did change Mark’s word “hitting on” into the more neutral term “approaches”. Was that fair? Well, some on this thread – Mary Regnier-Wilson for example – have taken care to distinguish reasonable from unreasonable behaviour, and restrict “hit on” to the latter case. However, many others have pointedly refused to make any such distinction. Their clear implication is that a man should always be scared away from saying anything at all to a woman he does not know well, even (for example) asking her for directions. For such people, “hit on” does really seem to mean, simply, just “speak to”.

  • Revisiting this thread out of curiosity I find the my ignorance of the phrase “hits on me” qualifies me for inclusion in the category of men with whom Mary Regnier-Wilson does not relax anymore.

    As a Great-grandfather I am pleased to see young Ruth Coleman-Taylor restating a principle that is gender-neutral and applies widely in life, not just in the testosterone hotspots that some Liberal Democrats inhabit.

  • Join the club Helen. Similar to you, I found myself being undermined by a younger but more powerful man “who did everything he could to undermine everything I was doing in the election campaign.” Sadly that guy was Nick Clegg.

  • Barry Snelson 23rd Mar '16 - 3:40pm

    You certainly provoked a discussion!
    My view on culture change (in exactly this area) is that it has been in some way accomplished in the ‘modern workplace’.

    It is hard for ‘young people’ (sorry for the phrase) to understand how far workplaces have come. I am not wordsmith enough to describe the world of work when I started, in the 70’s, but watch a couple of episodes of “On the Buses” with Reg Varney to get the general idea.
    The culture change, which has genuinely seen women move from receptionist and typist to CFO and CEO came from positive actions.

    Those actions have led, a little way, to the world where (“terror” is not quite the word) a male employee knows that a complaint of harassment against him from a female employee is likely to be career and employment terminal.
    Those who have seen both ends of this culture change journey might say the new atmosphere is ‘cooler’, more polite and formal and not as knockabout, cheeky and saucy as the time before but it has done its job. A woman in a senior role was a real rarity once but not now.
    Some have said that a political party is not a workplace but it is a place where people work together for a common goal and which has a leadership responsible for giving clear direction and looking after team members’ welfare.

    So what to do?
    Several voices talked of a notorious individual who pestered many females. Well he has to be used as an example. Any competent modern HR department will tell you what to do. Build up a detailed documentation trail – dates times words used – and compile them together from many ‘victims’ all very quietly of course. All irrefutable stuff.
    His humiliation and public downfall won’t half concentrate other minds.
    This sounds brutal but culture change is hard and clear messages, not half hearted ones have to be sent.
    I recall the days when a woman from ‘the office’, on an errand through the (male) workshop would be whistled at by every machinist on the way down and every one on the way back. No one would dare dream of such a thing nowadays and the change came through the leadership enforcing, with serious consequences, new norms of behaviour. These new norms did not emerge on their own.
    So, a new and much better culture is possible, it has been done before, it is tremendously beneficial for the gender mix and the performance of the enterprise but it has to be instilled by deliberate actions and not by hope alone.

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