Life

“What happened when I went to lobby my MP about workplace sexual harassment”

Sexual harassment in the workplace remains a global problem, but how can we make a real change? Stylist’s Moya Crockett spends the day learning how to lobby.

My local MP, Labour’s Harriet Harman, is a committed feminist. She should be an easy person to approach about sexual harassment. But I’m intimidated by the thought of making demands of her. Of just walking up to her and asking for something. Even though I know she’s supposed to represent me in parliament.

“It’s normal to be nervous before lobbying, especially if you’ve never done it before,” says experienced campaigner Helen Pankhurst, senior advisor at Care International – the charity behind the annual #March4Women rally – and convenor of women’s rights coalition the Centenary Action Group (and great-granddaughter of suffragette leader Emmeline). “But the more you do it, the easier it will be. Remember those who have gone before you – including the suffragettes – and take courage from them.”

The suffragettes famously spoke about the need for “deeds not words”. But if I’m honest, my life so far has been more focused on the words side of things. Case in point? Since joining Stylist in 2016, and particularly since the #MeToo movement went global a year later, I’ve written dozens of articles about sexual harassment. But writing about a subject is one thing. Crusading for change at policy level is another kettle of fish entirely.

According to a TUC poll, more than half of women in the UK have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work. Even more shockingly, women who work in retail, hospitality and other customer-facing roles have little protection from their employer – legally, employers have no responsibility to protect workers from third-party sexual harassment by customers, visitors or clients.

Stylist’s Moya with chair of the women and equalities committee Maria Miller MP (left) and Jess Phillips MP, who founded anti-harassment campaign Not The Job

While I’ve been on plenty of protests in my time, I’m embarrassed to admit that’s as far as my political activism has ever taken me. Today, though, that’s about to change. Along with dozens of other women, I’ve come to Westminster to lobby my MP for changes in the law around workplace sexual harassment. We’ve been brought together by Care International to get politicians to publicly commit to tackling sexual harassment at work.

Care International has organised a series of lobbying workshops to boost our confidence before we go head-to-head with our MPs. The first session is run by Pankhurst and Labour MP Jess Phillips, who launched anti-harassment campaign Not The Job in 2018. 

Phillips tells me that lobbying – which just means meeting your MP to persuade them to act on an issue – is a vital part of democracy. “I’m much more likely to listen to someone who meets with me than if they scream at me on Twitter.”

It’s also important to recognise that imposter syndrome is very much a thing when it comes to lobbying. “Women assume they don’t know enough about an issue to talk to their MPs,” says Phillips. “But MPs don’t know everything. Don’t worry that you’re not expert enough to talk to these lofty people.”

Next, we run through the specific requests we’ll be making of our MPs. This is a crucial part of lobbying: rather than simply asking a politician to do ‘something’ about an issue, you should have a crystal-clear idea of the steps you want them to take. Conservative MP Maria Miller, chair of the women and equalities committee, says that while the government has made some welcome steps towards tackling sexual misconduct, “it’s not enough. We still have to make clear that this level of discrimination and harassment in the workplace is not acceptable.”

As a result, today we’re asking MPs to pressure the government to reinstate third-party harassment laws. We also want them to commit to introducing a legal duty on employers to prevent harassment – which would force them to be proactive about protecting workers – and to support the most progressive version of an international convention to end workplace harassment worldwide. Claudia Craig, campaign manager at Centenary Action Group, explains this convention would help protect “the world’s poorest and most vulnerable women” from workplace sexual harassment.

Moya sits down with her MP Harriet Harman 

Finally, it’s time for us to put our new skills into practice. When I meet Harman in the Houses of Parliament, she’s as warm and focused as you’d expect the Commons’ ‘Mother of the House’ to be. (Tip: if you’d like to lobby your MP on an issue, you don’t have to go to Westminster – you can also arrange a meeting at your constituency surgery.) Recalling the advice I’ve absorbed, I run Harman through the nitty-gritty details of the legislation I’d like to see introduced. 

I also tell her why this issue matters to me. As a former waitress, I’ve been harassed by customers while doing my job – and I believe all women should be able to work without fear. She listens carefully then promises to write to both the employment minister, Alok Sharma, and Penny Mordaunt, the women and equalities minister and international development secretary, asking them to take concrete action on these areas.

I’m elated. I know my small victory won’t stamp out workplace sexual harassment on its own, but knowing I’ve persuaded just one politician to take action feels triumphant. And that’s the thing about political change – you’ve always got to start somewhere.

How to lobby your MP

Helen Pankhurst shares her advice

  • Be informed, but don’t think you have to know it all
  • Together we’re stronger. Lobby with friends or relatives
  • Be clear what you’re asking for
  • Don’t attack MPs on social media – get them on board through persuasion
  • Find your MP’s contact details at parliament.uk

For more about Care International’s campaign against workplace harassment #ThisIsNotWorking visit careinternational.org.uk

Images: Guy Bell