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Opinion

Harass and humiliate: Angela Rayner is the public face of a common workplace experience

Like Angela Rayner, I started wearing trousers to avoid humiliating accusations of unprofessionalism. The impact of this harassment runs deep.

Hearing deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner tell ITV’s Lorraine Kelly that she’s wearing trousers to avoid judgement, days after she was accused of “distracting” the prime minister with her legs, is yet another reminder of the pervasive workplace sexism women must contend with while simply trying to do their job. 

The PM has been at pains to clarify that such accusations, reported by the Mail on Sunday’s political editor Glen Owen, were “not in his name” but it is surely a welcome shift in the spotlight, away from the scandals surrounding his own behaviour and on to Rayner’s, now sexualised, physical appearance.

Beneath the surface, this is a calculated smear against Johnson’s strongest female opponent. It’s humiliating and indicative of a culture in Westminster in which three Cabinet ministers and two shadow ministers have been accused of sexual misconduct. 

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Rayner said she begged the Mail on Sunday not to run the article and has since been forced to spend time defending herself against the “categorically untrue” accusations instead of doing her job holding the government to account.

The scandal has brought up memories of when, as an eager-to-please 23-year-old early in my career, I was pulled into a meeting room by a senior female colleague. Couched in flattery – “aren’t you lucky to be young and slim? I wish I was!” – I was told that my dress was too short, too tight, and was distracting the CEO from his work. 

It was unclear whether this had been raised as an issue by the man himself, or whether my older, ‘wiser’ colleague had stepped in as a preventative measure. But she made it crystal clear that my physical appearance – in its current form – was preventing the CEO from getting on with his very important work.

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I haven’t thought about this interaction in years. At the time, it seemed little more than the pathetic meddling of the office Karen, hilariously archaic in what I had thought was a post-MeToo, liberal working environment. 

But I never wore that dress again, and, come to think of it, trousers have become my work wardrobe staple – sometimes a loose-fitting, calf-length skirt on warmer days.

It’s unsettling to think about how such seemingly minor interactions can go on to shape how professional women like me conduct ourselves in everyday work environments. It can make us question; is my presence here a distraction? Am I being taken seriously? Would it be better to sit at the back?

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These micro-aggressions manifest themselves in workplace confidence, and the respect women are permitted to wield. Recent YouGov polling found that just one in five women who ask for a pay rise are given one, compared with just under a third of men. After all, if you can’t be trusted simply to dress appropriately, can you be trusted with higher responsibility?

Leader of the Commons Lindsay Hoyle asked to meet the journalist in question to address the claims about Rayner. Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee and Conservative MP Caroline Nokes wrote to Hoyle to ask whether Owen should have his parliamentary Lobby pass revoked.  

Less than 24 hours after the story was published, it had prompted 5,500 complaints to IPSO. The press regulator received just over half of that number of complaints against articles in the entire year March 2020 and April 2021. So there is no question that the misogyny and sexism at play has been widely condemned both in Westminster — despite the overreach on press freedoms — and by much (but not all) of the British public. 

But in publishing the article, the damage has already been done. Women in workplaces across the country have been reminded to check their posture, reconsider that blouse, pull down the hem of that skirt, lest they risk giving ammunition to anonymous gossip hounds who want to undermine and humiliate. 

And what we really need to be asking is why these accusations were given column inches – five pages of them – at all? It is perplexing why Owen didn’t shut the story down for being blatantly misogynistic. Or, better still, interrogate his source for even thinking this was newsworthy. Wouldn’t something along the lines “Tory MPs wage sexist smear campaign against Angela Rayner” have summed it up better?

Or, how about another line of questioning – from one journalist to another, Glen – do they consider their leader up to the job if they truly believe his attention could be stolen by the presence of a woman in a skirt? And more to the point, in a cost of living crisis that is seeing children turn to food banks, don’t they have more important things to think about?

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