By guest author Clara Murray from the Raconteur.
Former Tesco chair John Allan’s rebuttal after he was accused of making inappropriate comments show sexism is alive and well in the workplace.
John Allan hasn’t had the best of years. First, he saw the organisation he used to lead, the CBI, implode over accusations of sexual harassment. Then he was booted from three high-profile chair positions (Tesco, Barratt Developments and Imperial College) after being himself accused of inappropriate touching and remarks.
For most of us, that might inspire a period of humility and quiet self-reflection. But Allan has followed in the footsteps of his disgraced successor at the CBI, Tony Danker, and come out swinging.
Speaking to Sophy Ridge on Sky last Sunday, he denied all allegations of sexual misconduct, but admitted complimenting a female employee’s figure – to cheer her up, he said. His former employers, he said, had not taken proportionate action to protect their brands and staff, but rather “propelled [him] under the nearest bus”.
Allan went on: “A lot of men say to me they’re getting increasingly nervous about working with women, mentoring women, something I’ve done a lot of right through my career.
“What quite a few people are saying to me, and saying to others that I know, is that they’re going to be very cautious in future about how they interact with women in the business world.”
“I think if it leads to overcaution, it will actually be a negative.”
Not being sexist isn’t hard
This defence manages to be simultaneously sexist, self-absorbed and snooze-inducing. (The sole point in his favour is that he did not use the word “woke”, but I’m sure he was tempted.)
If Allan truly cannot understand simple modern workplace norms such as ‘treat women like people, not sex objects’, his retirement from mentoring may be not as great a loss to the business community as he seems to believe.
It’s also a weirdly childish threat to claim that men will start avoiding women if they keep complaining. If men can’t have what they want (to sexualise women), then they won’t play nice (include women as equals in the workplace) – so there!
Were Allan able to put himself in his female colleagues’ shoes, he might understand why it’s not just ‘offensive’ but frustrating and demeaning to constantly be reduced to one’s physical appearance.
It’s not just ‘offensive’ but frustrating and demeaning to constantly be reduced to one’s physical appearance,
Even the version of the compliment he wishes he’d used – “that’s a very nice dress, it suits you very well” – is about how she looks, rather than anything remotely connected to her abilities. Handy tip: women like to be appreciated for their work at work, just like men!
But it’s his claim that men are “increasingly nervous” about working with women that really grates.
Because what he’s actually saying is that men should be able to swan through their careers without giving a second thought to how their actions and words might impact others. That’s a luxury no woman in the corporate sphere can afford.
Allan might be surprised to hear some of the things that make women feel nervous at work: from whether a genuine mentoring relationship with an older colleague will set off rumours of an office affair, to whether she should wear a wedding ring – or any rings at all – to a job interview, in case it’s assumed she’s planning maternity leave.
At Allan’s former employer, women even had reason to be nervous about being raped or assaulted at work events.
Why businesses must reject Allan’s rhetoric
Happily, Allan’s comments have been met with widespread outrage. But before he appeared on Sky News, several City bosses had signed a letter vouching for his character. While many might now be regretting that support, it’s important that rhetoric like this does not go unchallenged by businesses.
A third of women surveyed last year said their career had been affected by sexual harassment. Almost three-quarters had seen men behave inappropriately at work. Behind those statistics are thousands, if not millions, of women who have been made to feel excluded, unsafe or of less worth than their male colleagues.
At a time when companies are struggling to find women to fill senior roles, they must foster cultures that are inclusive and welcoming to all.
Backing a powerful man who seeks to blame those who speak up about misconduct feeds a system that does not allow women to fully participate.
In that context, I think it’s long past time that men like Allan start to feel anxious, too.