Rebecca Cooney: No excuses for charities not to act on sexual harassment allegations

After the Charity Commission's damning report on Save the Children, the time for apologies is over and the time for real action is here

Rebecca Cooney
Rebecca Cooney

Every organisation has policies in place to deal with sexual harassment allegations. And every woman thinks she knows how she would deal with sexual harassment.

“We have robust procedures and a zero-tolerance approach.”

“I’d scream, I’d slap him, I wouldn’t let it happen.”

And yet, when faced with the real-life situation, the response doesn’t always go to plan.

Alongside the well-known "fight-or-flight" response to trauma, there's a third, less commonly acknowledged option: freeze.

This is the response many people report when experiencing harassment or assault. The brain becomes so overwhelmed that you just clam up.

As easy as it seems to brush off unwanted advances from a boss or mentor, to issue a swift retort or knee to the balls and immediately tell colleagues or do any of the things we all tell ourselves we'd do, power dynamics make it infinitely more complicated than that.

When the man (as it usually, though not always, is) has power over your career, your life, your pay check, when he's a respected man doing good in the world (which is so easily confused with being a good man), when you worry people won’t believe you, it is incredibly hard to react the way you want to.

At the heart of the “freeze response” is the feeling that it's all just too much to cope with. The body shuts down and the brain disassociates. If I just stay still, if I just pretend it isn't happening, maybe it will all go away.

And in a way, this is what charitable organisations dealing with allegations of sexual harassment have been doing. They're investigating, yes, but quietly, hoping it will all go away.

Save the Children's response to the allegations against Justin Forsyth in 2012 was to keep it informal and ask him to apologise. And of course, it didn't go away. It happened again in 2015, twice, followed by complaints about another member of staff, Brendan Cox.

When the press came knocking in 2018, the response was to be defensive. Nothing to see here. It was all informal, anyway, a response survivors felt minimised their experiences.

The Charity Commission's report on Save the Children, published today, notes: "The issues we found at Save the Children UK are unlikely to be isolated to this charity".

The regulator is right. There are other organisations out there, staying very still, keeping it all very quiet, hoping it will go away. It won't.

There's been a lot of talk lately about how charities can harness the skills of talented women, and why they aren’t getting the roles they deserve.

Is it any wonder, when women who face harassment and ask for redress are given nothing but apologies? The man retains his power and the opportunity to do it again. What is an apology in that context but a calculated insult? This man, and all the good he has done, is worth so much more than your safety, your career, your potential.

But, of course, there are fundamental differences between someone facing trauma and an organisation facing allegations against a powerful, respected man in its midst and the reputational damage that goes with that.

The first difference is power. Charities are not beholden to these men: however much good they have done, however much money they raise and help others raise, the sector can always find someone else. Charities lose nothing by speaking out, by acting decisively, rather than quietly asking for apologies.

The second is choice. Assault survivors often blame themselves for not running or fighting back. But freezing is instinctive: you don't have a choice.

The same cannot be said for charities. They do have a choice. And the women affected by Cox and Forsyth and other predatory men might, or might not, have frozen when they were harassed or assaulted, but they certainly aren't frozen now.

They are speaking up, making complaints, making a lot of noise and taking action.

It takes incredible bravery to come forward, to speak out, to risk so much in order to stop abusive behaviour.

And in the face of such courage from individual women, organisations have no excuse not to behave in the same way.

Rebecca Cooney is features and analysis writer for Third Sector

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