As #MeToo is followed by #WhyIDidn’tReport, it is clear that the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace is not going to disappear from the headlines any time soon. Beth Hale of CM Murray LLP discusses how the fashion industry can take steps to prevent or deal with sexual harassment within their organisations.
Fashion is not immune from #MeToo
In the 12 months or so since the #MeToo movement was launched, women and men from all walks of life have come forward to speak about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. It is likely that many more continue to maintain their silence. The fashion industry is certainly not immune – allegations have been made by and against high profile figures and there have been a number of exposes of widespread inappropriate behaviour.
Recommendations for change
Both the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee have made a number of recommendations for changes to the law in this area and the intense public interest in the issues means that future changes are possible. However, unless and until Brexit is finalised the government has significant other priorities and immediate legislative change is unlikely. In the meantime, organisations should be considering what steps they can take to prevent sexual harassment and to deal with it when it occurs.
Organisations should identify particular areas of risk in their organisation. Long hours and frequent social/networking events where alcohol is consumed are key flashpoints, as are high pressure environments such as photo shoots and shows.
Ensure clear reporting lines
A major issue in sexual harassment is that victims are reluctant to come forward – afraid of retaliatory action and concerned about the impact it will have on their careers. Organisations need clear and effective reporting procedures and victims should feel confident that they will not suffer any negative impact from making a report. Appointing a sexual harassment reporting officer as a single point of contact and accountability can assist with this – ideally a senior person in an organisation who is trained in dealing with the relevant issues.
Awareness and understanding
Having effective policies and procedures is all very well but if no one knows about them, they aren’t going to change things. Organisations should provide information to staff, including to contractors and other third parties carrying out work for or on behalf of the business, about what harassment is and how to report it. It should be made clear that all complaints will be treated seriously. Proper and regular training should be provided – not just as a tick box exercise, but as a meaningful learning experience for all staff, including managers. Those who are witness to incidents or allegations, as well as those who are otherwise aware of them, should also be encouraged to come forward to ensure that the onus to report does not just fall on victims.
One of the areas which has received huge media attention and criticism is the heavy-handed use of confidentiality provisions when settling claims of sexual harassment. The use of so-called “gagging clauses” is common – and can in some circumstances work well for both parties (as well as for those wrongly accused of harassment). But they should not be used as a way of covering up criminal activity, and those entering into such arrangements need to have a clear understanding of their limitations.
Attitudes to sexual harassment are changing. Behaviour that was once widely accepted (if not acceptable) is now being called out as inappropriate and objectionable. But we are still not at the end of the road. The mistreatment of models has been acknowledged as an issue since before Time’s Up – Kering and LVMH signed up to a charter to ensure better treatment of models back in 2017. The determination of the industry to improve the situation should not stop there.