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After an earlier article on sexual improprieties in European Parliament, Politico Europe is again targeting sexual mores in EU institutions. In a series of tweets, Politico.eu promotes an article, indicating a “culture of sexual harassment“, and claiming that “sexual harassment runs rampant” at the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE).

In the article itself, there is actually rather limited evidence for a ‘culture’ of sexual harassment, let alone that it was ‘rampant’. Whereas in the case of the European Parliament, an example of blocking an exit was more or less equated with an enquiry after stockings, in this particular article, the tweets seem hyperbolic in view of the actual facts discussed.

Politico.eu claims that EIGE was confronted with a “crisis” of sexual harassment around 2014, and offers an examination of how the agency handled the crisis. While it becomes clear from this examination that there was a crisis, at least of confidence, around that time, the actual evidence provided for a “culture of sexual harassment” is paltry.

Indeed, after delving into one case study, Politico announces EIGE has had “a policy of ‘zero tolerance’ of sexual harassment since 2012” and is leading the push for such policies to be implemented “across EU agencies“. Politico then concludes from its examination that it is difficult to follow this policy in practice, adding

even in an organization dedicated to promoting gender equality.

Although one can appreciate the attempt at irony, the whole idea of a “culture of sexual harassment” is based, if one is to go on Politico’s reporting, on three formal complaints,

a female employee who told a human resources officer in 2012 that she had witnessed and experienced sexual harassment [at EIGE].

and Politico’s curious interpretation of a 2014 survey and subsequent audit. The reader learns that the staff did not agree that “reports of inappropriate behavior would be taken seriously,” and the audit found that the issue of sexual harassment was “a source of animosity and discomfort among staff.” But to conclude that the EIGE has a sexual harassment problem from this, when Politico itself must admit that

the nature of the problem was and remains bitterly disputed

at least indicates a problem of definition. As mentioned, the article opens with a case study, the story of a woman called Emma. She levels accusations against a male colleague:

One night about two months in, he started to get drunk at a work dinner, she said in her complaint, and ‘lost any kind of filter’ when colleagues moved to a bar. He flirted with her explicitly, in front of two other managers, and asked if she was a lesbian. When she was with another female trainee, he asked if they both were.

As soon as the other trainee left, he ‘begged’ her to walk him home. She refused, and as she walked away at 3:30 a.m. down a dark street in Vilnius, Lithuania, she heard him calling after her: ‘Are you refusing me? Are you refusing me?’

Politico calls this, in combination with previous remarks, “persistent sexual harassment“. Yet, far from proving a “culture of sexual harassment” the reaction to Emma’s complaint tells quite a different story. Although Emma complains about the way she was treated, Politico also writes that

the man accused by Emma, also left the agency around six months before the end of his contract, although it was technically not terminated. The case took a toll on him as well. He filed a complaint with the European Ombudsman, and colleagues said his demeanor changed dramatically.

A quote by Director of the institute Virginija Langbakk puts the lie to the idea that there was any acceptance of this kind of inappropriate behaviour:

He was a wreck psychologically. He felt nobody wanted to speak to him. This kind of social punishment was much stronger than anybody would imagine.

What the article does manage to paint, is a very difficult working relationship between, on the one hand, what is describes as ‘gender experts’ and local hired personnel on the other hand. Politico says these were “not exactly versed in feminist theory,” actually suggesting hypersensitivity in those that were, as becomes clear from certain remarks on the working relationships at EIGE.

The impression that is strongest, after reading the article, is that of one or two anonymous interns have been hit hard by things that happened to them. What happened to them, doesn’t become completely clear. What does become clear, is that Politico can’t really prove its – repeated – accusations of a ‘culture of sexual harassment‘. It proves inappropriate behaviour took place, just as well as it proves that this behaviour wasn’t accepted. All in all, it is a very important subject, not treated with the gravity and objectivity it should be. A bit like JP says: