The beginning of a fall

Mira Cornelia – a former student of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, writes on Barbara Stocking and the cover up of sexual harassment.

Yesterday was International Womens' day when we celebrated women’s rights and achievements all over the world.

And yet, two days ago, Barbara Stocking, the ex-CEO of Oxfam announced that she would be stepping down as President of Murray Edwards College at Cambridge, an all women’s college, to prepare for an inquiry into Oxfam’s actions on handling sexual exploitation claims in Haiti in 2011 under her governance.

As an alumnus of the college, I found this particularly poignant. Murray Edwards College always held pride of being an all women’s college, believing that it empowered women to take on the system and eventually be part of it and shape it. Now the student body, the JCR has come out public ally, against its President. 

But the truth is, I am not shocked. The culture of not just sexual harassment, but the cover up and suppressing that this exists, of dismissing women who speak up is all too common as the #metoo trend has shown.

I should know because it happened to me. In my final year at Cambridge, I experienced unwanted sexual advances from a supervisor. A supervisor whose office was next to my room and whom I had come to develop a strong and close friendship with. I had told the previous President about what had happened, to which she replied ‘that is what men do to get close to you’ and left it at that. I was left confused and traumatised. It was my first experience of encountering the underbelly of being a woman. Being shut down for vocalising the sexual intimidation and violence I experienced. I presume, for the greater good of the college and the relationships between the President and this fellow.

And I’m not alone in how this has got dismissed. It’s sometimes overwhelming when I hear so many experiences of women across all sectors who can speak of similar experiences. Since the Weinstein scandal, I have heard about: sexual harassment in some of the major financial institutions in the UK, with all the women in the team being sexually harassed by the one man; on-going sexual harassment of some women in humanitarian organisations we consider to be the big hitters, with some leaving industries altogether.

But what kept this all going? I would argue that it is a fear that calling out the unethical behaviours would undermine the prosperity and reputation of the organisation.  So what do we need to do to make sure we make progress by the next International Women’s Day? because I long to celebrate an International Women’s Day when I am not measuring the progress of women by how much we have been less or more sexually harassed.  

Ultimately, of course, it means we need to make clear that women cannot be sexually harassed full stop. But there is a powerful case to make here that we have to create a culture where we encourage organisations to call out sexual harassment and we applaud them for doing so. That there is a clear pathway of incentives for all leaders to make the right choice. And we start creating this culture by making clear our support for the amazing work that Oxfam do, day in, day out, all around the world. Here’s to the fall of a culture of covering up sexual exploitation.


Mira Cornelia is a Young Fabian member

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