On the first business day after Christmas, the Minister for Cities and the Built Environment, Jamie Briggs MP, resigned from his ministry citing a lapse in ministerial standards. It has been reported that while at a function in Hong Kong, Mr Briggs said to a junior public servant that she had ‘piercing eyes’, that he later put his arm around her, and when she left the function he kissed her on the cheek. A cabinet investigation found that the events were a breach of ministerial standards, prompting Mr Briggs’ resignation.
Discussion online (see eg Jennifer Wilson, and Andrew Elder) and in the mainstream media (see eg Daily Mail and The Australian) vacillates between defence of Mr Briggs’ behaviour and dismay that such behaviour might exist still, in 2015.
As there is no suggestion that Mr Briggs was not afforded due process in cabinet’s investigation of the matter, the difference in opinion between those who think that Mr Briggs’ actions are acceptable and those who do not is a question of the boundaries of sexual behaviour. Indeed the boundaries issue might be one of when behaviour is sexual at all.
The discourse in support of the Minister’s alleged sexual harassment seeks to minimise his actions, to de-escalate the event. At the same time, whether or not the complainant is mentioned, it also minimises her credibility thus effectively accusing her of exaggerating harm. This post is not about questioning the credibility of this complainant. That is not material to the bigger question, which is what are the boundaries.
Those who cannot see the harm in this behaviour are unaware of the boundaries. This is because for so long, we have permitted unwelcome touching in any context – even in the workplace. It is widely considered to be normal. Women themselves have sought to de-escalate, to minimise, such behaviour when they have experienced it – even where we have not invited it, or welcomed it.
Even though sexual harassment in the workplace is now proscribed, it remains a workplace problem. Compounding the problem of the behaviour – and arguably reinforcing it – is the unwillingness of complainants to come forward. In light of the responses to the resignation of the Minister, it is not hard to see why complainants might be reluctant to come forward. Their experience, their veracity, is minimised and the situation is de-escalated. The boundaries of appropriate behaviours are not recognised.
Because as a society we have normalised sexual behaviours in a variety of non-sexual circumstances, the Minister may not have recognised the boundaries. His formal statement thus deploys strategies of de-escalation and minimisation of his behaviour. His statement stresses the informality of the dinner, the very crowded bar, the lateness of the evening, and his having paid for dinner personally. The Minister acknowledged the ‘particularly high standards’ of ministers, which likewise serves to imply that the behaviour might be OK in other contexts.
In light of the apparent uncertainty of the location of professional boundaries, Mr Briggs’ experience demands that we clarify where are the boundaries of professional behaviour: in other words, to redefine professionalism.
The idea of professionalism developed in a time when women were not professionals. It was therefore an inherently masculine concept (embodying a particular type of masculinity). Where women did enter the workplace, their role was subordinate to men. In professional contexts, women (until they married) were secretaries, nurses, and ‘hostesses’; not lawyers, ministers of the Crown, doctors, or pilots. The rituals between men and women reflected deeply gendered constructs including men’s assumptions of entitlement to women’s own bodies even in the workplace.
Social practices have reinforced (and continue to do so) many men’s sense of entitlement to women – but not vice versa. This is why, I think, it is predominantly men who seem to struggle with understanding the boundaries. Conversely, it is predominantly women who receive unwanted physical attention and comments on their appearance in the workplace (and beyond). Some, apparently, are not bothered by it. But for many, it represents a breach of the boundaries and it is hard to think of a reason why sexual behaviour, notably unwanted sexual behaviour, is in any way relevant to the workplace.
Now that women have entered the professional sphere, the rituals of interaction between men and women need to be rewritten. It seems that despite three decades of the Sex Discrimination Act (1984) Cth, the boundaries require clarification. (See eg the NARS Report, 2014, that found one in four women in the Australian legal profession have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.)
The argument for clarity in professional behaviours is augmented by the dominance of men in positions of power. This is the case for Mr Briggs, as a Minister of the Crown, as well as other professions such as the law and medicine. Power in the workplace skews the experience of sexual behaviour beyond simply unwanted, sometimes towards threatening. Those holding power owe a professional responsibility to recognise its effect on their colleagues and particularly on their subordinates.
The problem we face however in attempting to define professional boundaries is the sense of entitlement by those who fail to recognise the boundaries exist. This is evidenced by the response of those who apparently see nothing wrong with Mr Briggs’ behaviour. In seeing nothing wrong with such behaviour, these defenders also struggle to know just how they might behave otherwise. In addition to articulating where the boundary lies, some may require some assistance to navigate them.
We make friends at work. We enter intimate relationships with colleagues. These are boundary-crossing events. But that is no justification for ignoring the need for professionalism in work behaviour.
It is not material whether your view is that flirtations are OK at work, or that men should kiss women in greeting. Because the rules of work have changed. I think we can accept, in 2016, that professionalism requires a refreshed standard of behaviour. For the avoidance of doubt that any, even tangentially, sexual behaviour is not appropriate in a work context, I offer some aids for the navigation of workplace norms.
- When greeting colleagues, a handshake is sufficient.
- Avoid commenting on a colleague’s appearance in any circumstances.
- Avoid asking about a colleague’s private life, including their sexuality or sexual behaviour.