It’s taken a little longer for the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal to spread to the U.K. media scene. But people in the industry are starting to feel safer about speaking out about sexual harassment and misogyny in the workplace — up to a point.
The widespread use of nondisclosure agreements on departing female employees in the U.S. is also a common tactic in U.K. agencies and media businesses, deterring women from speaking on the record about sexual harassment and gender-related bullying.
“You feel like shit as you don’t want it to happen to anyone else, but you’re in the worst possible state to take this on and stand up for yourself because your confidence has plummeted as a result of how you’ve been treated,” said a former media executive who spoke on condition of anonymity. “So you take the guilt money, and then spend your time putting your life back together.”
Those who don’t fit the template of what’s considered typical for women are often bullied and treated badly in U.K. businesses, according to sources. “I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard ‘she needs a good shag’ said about women in powerful positions who don’t play to the caring, bubbly woman stereotype,” said a senior media agency executive. Men aren’t immune either, with sources describing occasions when senior management executives called male staffers homophobic terms like “faggot” loudly across the office to get their attention.
Several female senior executives Digiday spoke to for this story said gender-related bullying plays a big part in impeding women from reaching senior positions, with some adding that they left media due to hounding and bullying by dominant male bosses, whose behavior often rubbed off on other staffers. Another agency executive described a meeting with a colleague where she was told: “Are you going to make like a c*nt in meetings because you’ll do all the talking?”
It makes the ever-present drumbeat for diversity quotas, long touted by agencies and media businesses in the U.K., seem somewhat hollow. “Everyone agrees they have to change, but no one wants to speak publicly as they’re afraid what their bosses will say,” said Mary Keane-Dawson, co-founder and CEO of Truth media agency.
“What they don’t want is to call this out, only to be told, ‘We have to condone this behavior, as that person has been with the organization for the last 25 years. Yeah, I know they’re a bully, but that’s just their way,'” she added. “It’s really bad for the business and the industry.”
Vice is among those recently in the hot seat for revelations of sexual misconduct, with its owners accused of cultivating a culture of sex and drugs. Two senior employees were suspended in the U.S., prompting some of Vice’s U.K. staffers to call for an independent investigation into conduct at their own office and for all staffers to have sexual harassment training.
In a Medium post, a group of U.K. staffers wrote: “We are united in our aim to make this company a place where anyone, especially women, can flourish without fear of sexual harassment, racism or reprisal for speaking their mind. The revelations that the company pays more for silence than in wages is abhorrent, as is the knowledge our co-workers and superiors have been involved in abuse.”
Sources within Vice UK have described the publisher as being a “boys’ club” that rewards those who party with the bosses. “Women are spoilsports if they don’t participate, or if they challenge [the drug culture], you’re seen as anti-Vice,” said a Vice UK employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Many of the women in the U.K. feel immensely downtrodden, vulnerable in our jobs, not listened to, not respected or valued,” said another staff member. “The guys are more respected and valued, as they’re more ‘the mission’ than women. Vice is a very narrow set of personas — all male, all aggressive.”
However, several other Vice employees stressed that the Medium post did not represent the feelings of the 300 people in the U.K. office. “It’s a sweeping generalization and absolutely not reflective of all the female staff here,” said one female employee who sits on the Vice UK staff council.
Still, there’s no smoke without fire, and Vice has faced serious fire for previous conduct, specifically involving founder Shane Smith.
Another Vice executive, who also asked to remain anonymous, said media companies she previously worked at were far worse than Vice. For example, a former media executive cultivated a glittering career at a major publisher that was inclusive and diverse. But when she moved to a digital media company years later, she was subjected to ritual abuse and humiliation from a male boss, a known bully in the company. She was eventually diagnosed with stress and let go with a severance package. “I remember sitting outside the doctor’s surgery with a note signing me off work for a month, thinking, ‘What the hell have I done with my career?!’” this person said.
Other companies have been quick to distance themselves from employees that have behaved inappropriately with female staffers. Sources have described seeing on-the-spot firings for sexual misconduct at parties.
“The [sexual harassment] issue is not going to go away, and I think there will be collateral damage in the U.K., as I’m certainly aware of two or three individuals who are yet to be exposed,” said a recruitment agency executive who asked to remain anonymous. “The issue isn’t slowing down. It’s just a case of people really getting their cases nice and tight before they go to press.”