The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Embrace Equity” but this tame call to action stands in contrast to the unrelenting and increasingly violent challenges and threats women face, at home, online and in the workplace.
Over the past two years, we have had an onslaught of shocking reports of misogyny, sexual harassment, rape and familicide that seem to have been the recurring and depressing theme of news coverage of women. We submit that the temperate call for equality has not worked and a new law criminalising misogyny is urgent and necessary.
Misogyny in the Met
Looking back over the past two years, we have had the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving male Met Officer, the unlawful policing of women at the subsequent vigil, serving male Officers joking about domestic violence victims in a WhatsApp group with Wayne Couzens (nickname, ‘The Rapist’), male Officers jailed for taking and sharing images of two sisters, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman murdered in North London in June 2020, WhatsApp messages joking about rape between male Officers at Charing Cross Police Station and sexist and racist videos shared by serving male Officers at Bethnal Green Police Station. These are the people we pay to protect us and uphold the law.
Last month, we read of the conviction of a Police Officer, David Carrick, for 85 offencesagainst 12 women including 48 rapes over a 17-year period. Of David Carrick, the Met said that “he should not have been a Police Officer” and “opportunities” were missed to remove him from the Service. Opportunities were not “missed”: all those rapes and sexual assaults were clearly recorded. Rather, his actions were covered up and even facilitated by the Met because it allowed him to keep his police badge and job which he then exploited in order to continue to rape innocent women.
Basic Human Need
In his well-known theory, “The Hierarchy of Needs”, Abraham Maslow proposed 5 levels of need and suggested that only after basic needs are met can humans thrive and grow. Safety is, according to his theory, just above eating, breathing and shelter. Yet in 2023, women still don’t have this basic need met.
And it is not just their physical safety – they face threats and hostility in the online realm too. The actor and comic, Emily Attack, recently documented her experience of receiving thousands of unwanted online misogynistic messages and threats, images and videos. She spoke to the destructive impact such behaviour has on women and girls and on their belief in their right to exist and to take up space.
More than Culture
Whilst it was individuals, Couzens and Carrick, who carried out the attacks on women, it is the scale of the organisational cover-up of these men that is of particular concern. This was not simply oversight or mistake. These were workplace systems and culture which allowed both men to remain in positions of power over women despite serious issues that were brought specifically to its attention. There were also people who were aware of both men’s behaviour and did nothing; they too are culpable.
The Met’s Mission Statement is “Making London safe for all the people we serve” and its stated values are ‘professionalism, integrity, courage and compassion’. Yetit is behaviour that drives the real values in an organisation and employees copy the behaviour that has rewarded managers and leaders. In the case of the Met, those behaviours illustrated widespread misogyny as well as a total lack of accountability.
So, whilst a root-and-branch independent review of the Met Police would be a start, we simply cannot trust it to deliver fundamental and radical reform. It is time for legislation.
Employers across the UK
It is time for legislation because the Met is not an isolated employer. In October 2022, the media reported on the case of Sophie Brook., a former submariner who was its first female warfare Officer and brought horrific complaints of sexual harassment, discrimination and sexual assault against some of the Submarine Service’s most senior officials. Her allegations of relentless sexual bullying also included being told that she was number 6 on a “crush depth rape list” and having a penis put in her pocket whilst on duty. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Ben Key KCB, CBE, promised an Immediate Ships Investigation and yet, four months on, the final report has never been published.
In December 2022, the London Fire Brigade was placed into special measures and judged institutionally misogynistic and racist following an independent review. A female firefighter advised her friends never to allow male firefighters into their homes for safety checks and the review heard of female firefighters groped, beaten and their helmets filled with urine.
As employment lawyers, we also see the impact of misogyny in the workplace. In one case, we advised a woman in her 50s who had been raped by a colleague at a work conference. She had previously made a complaint of sexual harassment against him over which her employer had taken no action. Following the allegation of rape, her employer – a household name – refused even to suspend the alleged rapist, let alone carry out a disciplinary investigation. Likewise, the Police said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute despite evidence that the alleged rapist had stolen the bedsheets from the property.
Legislating for Misogyny
In 2021, the Scottish Government set up an Independent Working Group to be led by Baroness Helena Kennedy KC (then QC) to review hate crime legislation and specifically, the exclusion of women from it. Her recommendations have been accepted in full and she advocates for a number of new criminal offences based upon misogyny:
Stirring up hatred against women and girls;
Public misogynistic behaviour; and
Issuing threats of or invoking rape or sexual assault or disfigurement of women and girls online.
‘Misogyny’ is defined in the OECD as a “dislike of, contempt for or ingrained prejudice against women” and is the pervasive motivation for a wide range of behaviours impacting on women. We support Baroness Kennedy’s conclusions:
The law matters in society. It tells us who we are, what we value, who has power and who hasn’t….
We are advocating legal reform because the power of the law in marking certain conduct as criminal cannot be underestimated. The law and the justice system play a crucial role in securing equality. Law that is failing half the public is seriously failing. It is right to say that something like misogyny can only be challenged through a serious cultural shift across society but law has a key role to play in effecting that sea change. New laws do not create trust but the visible prioritising of women's concerns and the building of a criminal justice system where misogyny is really understood is a start.
It is time to take action and to make individuals accountable for their actions - as perpetrators and/or colluders. We urgently require legislation to criminalise misogynistic behaviour.
We would also say that there should be a Code of Conduct for Employers setting out what happens to an employee accused of sexual harassment and/or assault. Without question, an allegation of sexual assault should lead to an immediate suspension and a full and fair investigation.
So, on this International Women’s Day, we suggest that we need more than photos of women and men hugging themselves in an embrace of equity. We need, as a minimum and starting point, the law to change and to create criminal consequences for misogynistic behaviour wherever it takes place.