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#EUToo: why workplace sexism is rampant in Brussels
As a woman in politics, Terry Reintke is no stranger to sexism. In subtle ways, she has had her competence questioned because of her gender countless times. But when Dominik Tarczyński, a Polish lawmaker for the far-right Law and Justice Party, suggested during a parliamentary meeting that the women present had made it on to the committee because they were easy on the eye, well, that was something else.
Speaking after Tarczyński, German MEP Reintke gave the room a quick, easy-to-understand primer. “I’m not a member of this parliament because I’m beautiful, but because I’m a politician and I have a brain,” she said. Recounting the episode in a recent phone interview, she says that even having to clear that up was humiliating. “This exactly shows how much work we still have to do,” she says.
The #MeToo revelations have seen women around the world sharing stories of sexual harassment on social media. In one fell swoop, these testimonies about sexual misconduct in the worlds of entertainment, politics, sports and wider society have also shone a light on the pervasiveness of Tarczyński-like sexist attitudes, and started a conversation about what is and what isn’t appropriate behaviour in the workplace.
“I think what’s happening right now is unprecedented in terms of the shift in culture and consciousness,” says Joanna Maycock, secretary-general of the European Women’s Lobby, referring to the events of the past 12 months – from the women’s marches held in various cities following the election of Donald Trump to the #MeToo revelations. “I think it’s led many men, many women and many institutions to really question the kind of culture and working environment that they’re creating for their employees – women and men.”
'No woman in Brussels hasn't experienced it'
Women’s rights advocates say the European institutions are emblematic of the pervasiveness of sexism in the workplace. “There’s no woman in Brussels that hasn’t experienced sexist attitudes and behaviour,” says Maycock, pointing out that they are an issue in every industry, every workplace, every walk of life.
“The effort required to do your job, to be taken seriously, to overcome sexist attitudes, and to overcome the way in which you’re perceived by your colleagues and your bosses is so great,” she says. “And we combine that with the other societal pressures on women to be feminine, to be likeable, to be mothers and carers et cetera, et cetera. It’s exhausting, really.”
At the same time, the Brussels bubble is also nothing like other workplaces because there is so much power concentrated at the top of the institutions. This creates a potent breeding ground for unchecked sexism, Maycock explains, because sexist behaviour and sexual harassment revolve around power.
“The people with the most power are men, older men; the people with the least power are women, whether that’s as assistants or interns,” she says, adding that sexist language and behaviour are used to reinforce that power dynamic.
Alison Woodward is a Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) professor of political science who researched issues of gender and sexism in multinational environments in the 1980s and 90s. She says Brussels also combines the two combustible ingredients that characterise all political scenes – power, yes, but also sex.
“There’s a lot of young, very attractive people running around – women but young guys as well – and part of the excitement of being in Washington, or being in Paris or Brussels, is the vibes around sexuality, because so many people are young and many of them are alone,” she says.
Issues around power and sexism in the Brussels bubble are multiplied by the multicultural, multinational make-up of the staff, which creates a much greater potential for both misinterpretations on the one hand and out-of-line behaviour on the other, Woodward says.
“The problem is that how to flirt in different cultures is very different, and what might be taken as OK by an Italian might not be taken as OK by a Swede,” she says, adding that this is why crystal-clear guidelines outlining what is and isn’t allowed together with concrete examples are needed in such a multicultural environment.
Still, the unflattering light that’s been shone on the pervasiveness of sexism in the workplace also highlights how far we’ve come, she says, pointing out that the percentage of women in leading positions has increased significantly in the past few years.
According to figures from the European Parliamentary Research Service, 37% of lawmakers in the European Parliament today are women, compared to 30% in 2004.Noting that it’s incredibly hard for anybody who feels sexually harassed to come forward and take action, she says: “I think the outcome will be that that things will get better for all women, given that there are more women who actually have some power.”
Many female lawmakers, women’s rights advocates and survivors of abuse have in fact coupled the recent #MeToo declarations to a need for better workplace protections.
After revelations surfaced about sexual misconduct by men in senior positions in the EU institutions, lawmakers were for instance quick to adopt a resolution recommending a series of steps to combat sexual harassment and abuse – both in and outside the EU institutions.
Passed by 580 votes to 10, the European Parliament resolution called for the implementation of “mandatory training for all staff and members on respect and dignity at work so as to ensure that a zero-tolerance approach” to sexual harassment becomes the norm. Crucially, it identified sexism as one of the root causes of all forms of violence against women.
“We wanted to show that phenomena like sexism and sexual harassment and sexualised violence are not different things that you can separate,” says Reintke, who signed the resolution on behalf of the Greens and has been one of the driving forces behind the movement to address sexual harassment in Brussels and beyond.
“We need to look at what actually keeps women from entering these positions and I think sexism, sometimes taking the form of sexual harassment, is one of the major barriers to a more equal society in which women and men equally share power,” says Reintke.
It’s why both Reintke and Maycock say they will be closely watching – and agitating – to ensure that the policies in the resolution, which is not binding, do not remain empty promises. “Because if we want new, dynamic institutional decision-making and leadership, that has to include women and a greater diversity of people than we currently see,” Maycock says.
The scale of the problem
Sexism is the umbrella term used for prejudice or discrimination based on one’s gender. Sexual harassment, then, is an extreme form of sexism. It is defined in an EU Convention as any form of unwanted sexual behaviour with the aim or effect of violating the dignity of a person, and is punishable by law.
Although some European countries, including Belgium, have adopted laws criminalising sexism, it typically isn’t a punishable offence under the laws of most countries.
According to a 2016 study by the Brussels-based social enterprise Jump, 94% of women have been subjected to sexist behaviour in the workplace, with women in top management positions and licensed professions facing the highest levels of sexist behaviours.
Studies focusing on the experiences of female politicians suggest that sexism is as much a problem in politics as it is in the general workplace. A 2016 study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organisation of parliaments around the world, found that 65.5% of the respondents said they had faced humiliating, repeated sexist remarks during their parliamentary term.
This article first appeared in The Bulletin Spring 2018