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Agenda for Change event examines progress on sexual harassment

On 19 February, the one year anniversary of Equity's landmark report into into sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, we hosted an event to reflect on the progress made and challenges ahead. 

Maureen Beattie, Equity President, chaired the event and speakers included Jess Phillips MP (pictured), member of the Women & Equalities Committee whose report on Sexual Harassment in the workplace has helped to shift Government thinking, and actress Helen Vine, who won a claim of sexual harassment with Equity’s help and gave a powerful testimony about her experiences. You can read the full text of Helen's speech below. Stage manager Jess Richards spoke about the work the National Theatre of Scotland is doing to encourage safe spaces, while LGBT+ Committee chair Giovanni Bienne, Deaf and Disabled Committee member Natalie Amber and comedian Sameena Zehra all provided insight into different perspectives of the problem. 

Positive news includes:

  • The successful launch of Equity’s Safe Spaces campaign that aims to tackle the fear of reporting harassment and bullying and includes a dedicated Equity Helpline - 020 7670 0268. Productions have been encouraged to read a Safe Spaces statement before work begins. A video of the statement featuring David Tennant and Rosalie Craig was unveiled at the event and will be available online shortly.
  • Following Equity’s evidence that Non-Disclosure Agreements can intimidate workers from pursuing sexual harassment claims, even where they cannot legally be enforced, the government accepts this and has promised a consultation on their use.
  • Equity has lobbied hard to increase the window of being able to take an Employment Tribunal in sexual harassment cases from three months to six months and, again, the government has promised further consultation on this.
  • Equity has worked with employers and casting professionals on new sets of principles and guidance for sexual harassment and bullying.

Maureen Beattie, Equity President said, “We are striving to shift workplace culture, eliminate harassment and make our sector – rather than a hotspot for bad behaviour – one that is leading the way in best practice. We believe there has been a shift in perception among our members. In recognising bad behaviour and harassment for what it is, and in our resolve as an industry not to tolerate it, and that you will be believed if you come forward and Equity will have your back when you do.”

Jess Phillips ended her speech with a reminder of the importance of ongoing campaigning, saying, "We need structural change to stop these people from acting with impunity. We need to keep pushing, keep holding events like this until the most powerful place in our country stops backing these powerful men."

Helen Vine's speech

"Telling people they make you feel uncomfortable is hard. In an ideal world we would have the freedom to express how we feel in all situations but unfortunately this isn’t the case. And if someone is asserting power over you and psychologically abusing you, you begin to question what right you have to your own mind at all.

I never thought I would be standing here talking about having been sexually harassed when I decided to be an actress. What I do know is that I’ve always seen my career choice as not just about entertaining, but also about influencing. There are many things in society that I feel strongly about changing and it frustrates me that I’m unable to make much of a difference because I’m a ‘nobody’. Using what’s happened to me to make positive change is surely the best thing that I can be doing right now, which is why I’ve made the decision not to shy away from talking about it. To those who think it’s ok to intimidate, bully and harass verbally, mentally and sexually, it’s not ok. To those who have been bullied and harassed, you have support. And to those who are unaware or in denial that these sorts of things go on: it goes on.

As actors we have enough fear to deal with - auditions, unemployment, expectations, criticism - without having to fear you might be unsafe when you’ve managed to secure a job. The work Equity has done with the ‘Creating Safe Spaces’ campaign is addressing this, and we will get there, but it has been going on for decades and there is a lot that needs to be undone in the mentality and culture, not just of the old guard but also people of my generation and those still coming through training. But this isn’t just about the behaviour of those in the entertainment industry, it’s much broader, the problem is rooted in society as a whole. The media’s manipulation of the public’s perception of our industry is equally responsible and has enabled it. There’s a sickness in our culture and the ‘Agenda for Change’ is a step towards a cure.

It’s also important to not just point the finger of blame at men:

At drama school a female director told me that if I wasn’t prepared to do nudity in my showcase, I wouldn’t be able to call myself an actress.

In my employment tribunal, the other female cast member testified against me and continued to defend the actions of the men who sexually harassed and bullied me, even after hearing and seeing all of the evidence against them, and the effect it had had on me.  One of her comments was “well, all actors are vulgar aren’t they?”

One award winning female journalist asked me “Why did this happen to you?” Which left me speechless.

When I first signed up to be an Equity member I saw it as something of a distant body but knew it was essential for my protection, was affordable even when I was out of work and I knew it could be a safety net for me if anything went wrong.  In my first few years of working professionally things happened that I knew were not right but I put it down to ‘starting out’ and continually sought what I hoped would be the next positive opportunity.

When I was cast in a theatre tour with a company patroned by Judi Dench, who’s purpose was to bring Shakespeare and historical plays to children, I thought I would be in a safe environment to bring out the best of myself as a performer and person.

On week one of this job I was disappointed to recognise issues with the company and decided this time I would tell Equity at the end of the contract. These issues multiplied and more arose which were unimaginably worse. As time went on, my sense of self worth collapsed. I quickly became desensitised to my surroundings and the situation I was in, and the confidence I felt when going into the job vanished. I was isolated, I didn’t talk to my mum or my partner about what was going on; it was too humiliating.  I felt trapped and it wasn’t until I was at absolute breaking point that I reacted. I had mentioned one incident to a friend who works in a different industry, and though she said it would never happen in her workplace, her advice was to keep my head down and remember that I’ll be moving on soon.

When you are young and working your way up in any industry you feel you must obey the demands of the hierarchy and that the hierarchy holds the power to dismiss you or protect you. In my case it came from the top; the producer of the theatre company was actively enabling the indecent behaviour of his senior employee - the director.

It took my future father-in-law - who at that point I had only just met, and who I now know is a man of few words - to point out I was being sexually harassed, for me to even consider that was what was happening. I hadn’t heard the term sexual harassment, as this happened before the Weinstein revelations, and so was not in my consciousness.

When writing my initial email to Equity I experienced doubt and anxiety about using that terminology because I was still far from being convinced I was a victim of sexual harassment. I just thought it was a horrible company and they were horrible people.

The efficiency and assurance in Equity’s response took me by surprise. My case was dealt with, with the utmost of seriousness and sensitivity. Suddenly Equity were not a big faceless organisation but were human and I felt driven, encouraged and supported enough to see the case through.

Over the course of the year it took for my case to be heard I had to go over and over and over what had happened to me with a solicitor. I received phone calls asking for more and more details whilst on other acting jobs, I was emailed the witness and defence statements of the people who had harassed me, which I had to look over with a fine toothcomb whilst on my honeymoon. It pervaded every element of my life for that entire year and throughout it all I continued to doubt I even had a case worth hearing.

Finding out I would have to stand up in court in front of every member of the company who had subjected me to such humiliation made me want to walk away. I was desperate to be strong and brave in the face of adversity but I was starting to feel that giving in was a less painful option.

When I arrived in the car park on the first day of my hearing I was confronted with the sight of the producer and director arriving together. This is when I started shaking – I didn’t stop shaking until I was home, only for it all to start again the next day. After two hours of interrogation in which the theatre company’s representative raised his voice, talked over me and repeatedly called me a liar until I could barely speak, I was made to sit in a room on my own, knowing I had to go back in for more.

In the ‘Judgement With Reasons’ document (which is in the public record) the panel excused one of the incidents of harassment, stating that had it occurred in any other industry it wouldn’t have been acceptable, but since it had occurred within a theatrical environment it was. I am still shocked by this statement and the precedent it sets for making us vulnerable to certain types of abuse.

Ultimately I received justice. But there is no victim support offered by the courts, money is seen as the solution and there’s nothing in the employment tribunal legal system to stop this happening again. This is why it’s vital for us to stamp this behaviour out before it can begin.

Without Equity I would have brushed aside what happened as unlucky, and even perhaps viewed it as the nature of the industry. However having to break down everything I went through, standing up for myself and for having the right to feel something, to feel affected by someone else’s actions, has changed me as a person forever. There’s no way I will stand by and witness or experience this type of behaviour in the future.

Equity is paramount to our industry. It protects us, keeps us safe, and takes experiences like mine on board, making them part of a bigger movement for change. Agenda For Change recognises there is a big problem, it helps us know what our rights are and it empowers us to take action.

When I take a job I want to know I can get on with doing what I love in a healthy, creative environment. I still feel relieved and lucky when I’m in a job in which I don’t feel threatened, when really this should be the norm. I look forward to the day when it is."