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Deeba Syed is Here for You
Ever had a question for a sexual harassment lawyer? Read this interview
Deeba Syed is a political activist, women’s rights advocate and campaigner, and sexual harassment lawyer. In short, she’s a total badass. We met up before quarantine to talk about her work, Rights of Women, and so I could badger her with all the questions you’ve probably had when it comes to harassment in the work place. We got into it! Read on for our most helpful interview to date. And if you’ve still got questions afterwards, give Rights of Women a call. Deeba and her team are here for you.
Olivia: We’ll start with the basics, why did you become a sexual harassment lawyer?
Deeba: I would say I’m a women’s rights campaigner and activist. How did I become a sexual harassment lawyer? Well I, like many people, have experienced discrimination in the workplace. When I was in my early 20’s, I experienced sexual harassment as well as other types of discrimination, and I didn’t know they were discrimination at the time. I thought the world is unfair, and it never occurred to me that things could be different. I was so ashamed, I didn’t try and get help. I thought it was all my fault and I deserved it. But now that I’ve spoken to as many women as I have, who are in the same position I was, I know there’s nothing to be ashamed of, that I didn’t do anything wrong. And after experiencing that, it became important to me to empower myself. I don’t want other people to go through what I went through, so I wanted be a discrimination lawyer. It’s really a privilege to be able to help someone else through it now. I think a lot of what I do is just very simply making that woman feel like she’s not going through it alone.
I knew that was what I wanted to do. Employment law is all about people and their situations and their lives, it’s very relatable and understandable. I’ve always cared about fairness and equality and helping people, so it all just kind of worked out. I’ve got this amazing job where I get to work for an amazing women’s organisation Rights of Women, which gives women free legal advice, all by women lawyers. And I get to do actual front line work and work directly with the women, and yeah, it’s great.
And why am I a lawyer? I think because, well I’m Asian, and when you’re Asian you have to be either a lawyer or a doctor, when I was a kid my Dad asked if I didn’t mind blood, and I said, actually I think I could handle blood, and he was right then, you should be a lawyer *laughs* so that was my journey to becoming a sexual harassment lawyer, it’s a niche area of law, most people practice an entire area of law – I’ve got a really interesting specialism.
Olivia: So when you started training as a lawyer, was there any kind of information that is not widely available to women that you thought “wtf why don’t we know this?”
Deeba: So, I didn’t train to be a sexual harassment lawyer, you’re trained to do law and find a specialism later on, but you are so right, do you mean specifically in law or in my understanding of sexual harassment law now?
Olivia: Yeah, just in terms of our rights, I think a lot of women don’t really understand what we’re entitled to.
Deeba: It’s so important because at the end of the day it does just boil down to the law a lot of the time, and people don’t get that until they’re in a situation that’s really unfair, and then they think the law will protect them, they assume the systems are fair, and then they come up against the systems and are shocked to realise that they don’t have as many rights as they assumed they do. The number one thing in employment law is that your rights will change, depending on what type of worker you are, and I didn’t know this, when I experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, also I did not know that you have three months from the harassment or discrimination to bring a claim to the employment tribunal, that’s hardly any time. (In England & Wales)
So if you’ve been sexually harassed you only have three months from that moment or another continuing act of discrimination to bring an employment tribunal case. Do you know how fast that is?
Olivia: Yeah, really fast.
Deeba: You need to get your skates on and be organised, and most women are dealing with all of the fallout that comes with it, so they just don’t realise, so a lot of women, when they do want to take legal action but unfortunately the legal advice is ‘sorry, it’s been a long time since the harassment or any other discrimination, there’s not a lot you can do.” And it’s outrageous, I’m campaigning quite hard against this, because there shouldn’t be such a short time limit, especially for something like discrimination and harassment, something that destroys your self-esteem and your dignity. Victims get screwed over all the time and they didn’t even know about it.
Olivia: Yeah that should be in our freshman year orientation seminar.
Deeba: Yes, when you start a new job, you should be told this stuff right away, but the whole problem with the system is that people don’t know anything they need to know until there’s a problem and then they’re forced to go around trying to search for answers, and come to find out that the system is totally backwards. I mean if you didn’t want this stuff to happen in the first place you would tell everybody, ‘oh by the way this is sexual harassment and don’t do it’, and you wouldn’t be leaving these women in this situation where they’ve been sexually harassed, completely unwanted stuff happen to them that wasn’t their fault, and they don’t know what to do. Because we really do just leave those women out on their own, like “oh you’ve been sexually harassed? Sorry!” And if she wants to do something about it she’s going to have to take on her employer, and own harasser, and usually it’s all on her shoulders, it’s so scary, no wonder nobody wants to do it.
Deeba: Everyone assumes the system is fair, and yeah I think the whole purpose of Rights of Women and any legal understanding is, when you know your rights you are powerful, there is nothing more powerful than a woman who knows her shit.
When you know your rights you are powerful, there is nothing more powerful than a woman who knows her shit.
Deeba: Well, it changes the game when you know the rules. Knowledge is power.
Olivia: Absolutely, okay, speaking of which, what would be your number one piece of advice for a woman who is being sexually harassed in the workplace, who is feeling overwhelmed and has no idea how to start defending herself?
Deeba: Okay yes, as a lawyer, the number one thing I recommend is to make a detail record of any sexual harassment. You wanna create a dossier, like Gretchen Carlson does the Fox News anchor in the movie ‘Bombshell’, she’s got an this entire notebook of all the sexism and harassment she’s experienced, you see Nicole Kidman who’s playing her has it all tabbed up, Charlize Theron’s character Megan Kelly has one too, because that’s your evidence, it’s is vital. You have to be ready to go with what happened, who was there, what they said exactly, who else saw it.
So women who come forward and report sexual harassment, always say that no one is going to believe then, they worry they don’t have “hard evidence”, but a lot of harassment happens verbally, it happens behind doors, y’know there wasn’t CCTV camera rolling at the time obviously, so people think they don’t have any proof, but if you create a record, you do have proof, and if you’ve told someone what happened, they can be proof too.
Olivia: Oh and date it?
Deeba: Yes, the date is so important because of the strict time limit. There are loads of apps that will help you record what evidence you need to have which are super helpful, but the first thing you need to do if someone is sexually harassing you, you need to create a log, you need everything that happened, who was there, who saw it, who you can call for a witness later on, and all of that stuff arms you, it’s evidence, and you’ll feel like you’re on much stronger footing rather than just my word against his, you’ve got to be clever and creative with ways you can get the evidence, but it can be email, social media, if you’ve got them, take screen grabs, photos if you can. It doesn’t have to be your work emails, it can be your personal phone, Instagram whatever, some women think: “he didn’t harass me on not on my work email so it doesn’t count,” but it all counts.
Olivia: Any other advice?
Deeba: I just want to say to that woman that it’s going to be okay, everything is going to be okay, talking to women on the telephone advice line, I think sometimes, when they haven’t said the words out loud or they haven’t properly associated what’s happened with the words ‘sexual harassment’ it can be very difficult to just say it, “I’ve been sexually harassed”. It can be a very upsetting realisation. I remember it myself. When it’s all being explained the the caller and I can hear that sharp intake of breath as they are realising it, it’s hard. And you know, nobody wants to be the victim, nobody wants to be in that situation. But the main thing to remember is that you have options, you can have control of the situation, you can do things to protect yourself. Obviously the first thing I would say to a woman in that situation is to call the Right of Women advice line, that’s exactly what we’re there for, especially at that early stage
Oivia: Where can they find the advice line?
Deeba: It’s on the website *laughs* I should know the number off by heart, but I don’t! But it can be a first point of contact, you can call us at any stage, pick up the phone to us and we’ll tell you what you need to do. It’s just really important to know it’s not your fault, because so many women say that, y’know and I had that exact same thing, I spent months and months in my head, back and forth, what had I done? What had I done to invite this? I just assumed that this had to be my fault, and that is normal to think that, you’re not alone in thinking that. 100% it is his fault. It is the perpetrator’s fault. And more than that, it’s your employer’s responsibility to make it stop. It isn’t your responsibility. Your employer is responsible for all of their employees’ actions. So, it is not for you to go and have to tell that person off or to tell them to stop, you are within your rights to go to your employer and insist that they make your harasser stop and to protect you from it ever happening again.
Olivia: Is there anything you want to add about pitfalls when reporting your workplace harassment?
Deeba: Okay so, there are many things to be aware of and to weigh up. A lot of the time if you have to make a sexual harassment complaint – the woman coming forward is often worried that other people in the organisation are going to find out, and they don’t want to be the source of gossip and they don’t want to be seen as a troublemaker, stirring shit or anything like that. So women are really conscious that they want confidentiality, so they say “if I make this complaint I want it to be confidential, I want it to be anonymous and I want it to be like that” and sometimes employers will say yes, but the reality of the situation is that it’s very difficult to control that confidentiality and if an employer is making promises to you, they cannot guarantee it 100%, there is always risk that other people in the organisation are going to know about it
Olivia: That’s a good point
Deeba: If you call Rights of Women’s advice line and we can talk you through every step, but you know, it’s something worth remembering
Olivia: Women need to know the downside and the possible risks
Deeba: There are loads of downsides, I’m not gonna lie, but there are also protections if you do things accordingly, you can do things to protect yourself, so that’s why it’s really important to get advice early on. Don’t think you’re making a fuss if you get a lawyer involved or want to ask a lawyer something, no no no, you’re not making a fuss! You need to know your rights and you need to protect yourself, you’re arming yourself with knowledge. So 100% do that number one, and another thing that commonly happens is women don’t want to come forward because they’re so scared that they’re going to be retaliated against. So for example they are there will be some personal or professional repercussions for coming forward, because their harasser is more powerful than them and that is a very valid concern, but it’s worth remembering that if you make a complaint you are not allowed to be victimised for doing so.
I still think it is 100% worth reporting perpetrators if you can, because if we don’t all we’re doing is leaving this to other women to sort out. And perpetrators are usually very well known to an organisation, somebody is who acting inappropriately or acting in a sexist way, that won’t go unnoticed, it just will have gone unpunished, and it will never stop unless we call it out, unless we don’t tolerate it. It shouldn’t fall to us, but unfortunately, we know how the problem is endemic and perpetrators need to be held accountable.
Olivia: Okay, so if someone’s HR department isn’t taking their complaint seriously what would your advice be?
Deeba: It happens a lot. Women tell us this all the time, so that’s why it’s so important to know your legal rights. You can call us, we’ll tell you that your employer has an obligation to treat this very very seriously, it is very serious, and they have a liable for it. Remember that it’s them on the line, if they don’t do anything they could be sued if they don’t protect their employees from harassment, so it’s to be taken very seriously.
What can be good is if you come together as a group, so it’s very difficult to do on your own when you feel unsupported and you feel like you’re going to be the only one complaining. That’s what I liked about the film ‘Bombshell’ it shows what solidarity can do really well, that there is power in of lots of women coming together, it can create a domino effect, so maybe you know, if this person is a serial harasser, try and persuade women to make complaints about him too, and then if you create this overwhelming case against harassers and lots of complaints, it can be really helpful, find your allies in your workplace, find people who will bat for you when it counts and come out and support you. And, we should all just be better allies to people in the office, if we see it, call it out. Don’t wait for a victim to have to come forward and complain alone, if you see someone being harassed go up to privately and say, “I saw that happen, are you okay, do you want to do anything about it? How can I help?” Let’s take some of it off her shoulders.
Olivia: Okay, can you tell us a little bit more about your work with Rights of Women?
Deeba: So, the advice line is the day to day thing, but it’s so much bigger than that, it’s about creating policy and legislative change, it’s about making the justice system more fair for women so that women can truly achieve equality in the workplace. What I do is try to campaign to protect women from being sexual harassed in the first place, so they never have to go through it, instead of trying to fix things after the damage is done, after they’ve faced the personal and professional consequences, and the impact on their mental health and their careers. So if staff have to work in conditions where there’s going be alcohol like at Christmas parties and there’s going to be free alcohol, then you need to do more to make sure that inappropriate behaviour and things like that aren’t going to happen. Not just shrug afterwards and say oh well, he was drunk, what can be done? Prevention is always the best cure.
Olivia: Okay, so what’s the biggest challenge to changing the law in this area? Because I imagine there’s a lot of pushback.
Deeba: Well, sexual harassment is unlawful, it’s been for many years, but is that stopping people from sexually harassing anyone? No. So one of the big problems is the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), Jodi Kantor and Megan Towey’s book ‘She Said’ about Harvey Weinstein is so good at making this point, as he used them for years. So many women have been silenced from speaking out about sexual harassment they’ve exeperiene, it’s kept the issue so hidden, by this legal loophole, so a problem was always just buried, with the perpetrator never facing justice. So, it’s really hard because employers they want to protect themselves
Olivia: They want loopholes
Deeba: I just don’t want to be too harsh on all employers, some employers are good, some take sexual harassment really seriously, the question is what is that workplace’s culture? Is it a sexist culture? When they see harassment, do they say things like ‘oh it’s not that bad,’ ‘it’s not that serious’, ‘it’s just banter’, ‘what’s the big deal?’ And how do you legislate against that? How do you change the law to say, everyone stop being sexist, and stop sexualising women in the workplace, how do you put your thumb on that exactly, because that’s really what the deeper problem is. But it’s also what some men think is acceptable, is just not.
Olivia: So, what would changing the law around NDA’s do for women?
Deeba: So, I doubt the government’s not going to do that. But if we banned NDAs tomorrow, I don’t think sexual harassment in the workplace would end, yes they are part of the reason that Harvey Weinsteins, and serial perpetrators that have been able to get away with it for so long, they had this tool of power and contol in their arsenal that they’ve been able to use and keep their abuse under wraps. So it’s part of the problem, but the problem is so much bigger, and it’s about society, and abuses of power, and it’s violence perpetrated by men against women. We don’t have enough women in positions of power and there isn’t enough distribution of power with women at the top in organisations with serious decision-making ability. All these things are why sexual harassment happen, it is a symptom of gender inequality.
Olivia: There’s no balance of power
Deeba: Yeah it’s not even.
Olivia: What can MPs do specifically? What can the government do?
Deeba: It’s such a difficult question, when I first got into this, I hoped there was silver bullet and we just need a stronger law and that would do it. But that’s not true, because it’s already unlawful, we can’t make it more unlawful. The problem is women don’t want to come forward, women don’t want to hold perpetrators to account because of the personal repercussions on them. Because of the way we tear women who do, we tear them down so publicly.
So, for example in this country if organisation breaches data protection law, GDPR they’ll have a massive fine put on them, so you better believe a lot of employers do everything they can to make sure data laws aren’t breached, training all the time etc.
If it was the same for harassment and employers knew they are going to get a massive fine if it’s found that there is sexual harassment in their organisation, they would be firing those people without blinking, they just wouldn’t be worth the risk protecting.
The risk would be too high, but right now we have a of culture of “oh but if he’s a really good performer and he’s excellent at his job it doesn’t really matter if he’s a bully or a harasser” because he’s still worth having and there’s no real consequence if he is bullying and harassing, and yeah that sucks for the person being harassed but we can always just give them a settlement agreement, they can sign an NDA and no one needs knows about it. But if they said instead if there’s any harassment in the organisation or we might face a massive fine, you better believe employers are going to say, you can get out of here, mate.
Olivia: So tell me, what are the myths about sexual harassment that you would like to dispel, right here, right now?
Deeba: So, a lot of harassers will say, oh I wasn’t sexually harassing her, it was just a joke, it was just a compliment. And no. Sexual harassment is a subjective experience, if you feel you’ve been degraded or humiliated because someone has done unwanted sexual behaviour, you don’t need to check with somebody else if that it was sexual harassment, as long as it’s reasonable that other people would agree that it’s sexual harassment, you should feel confident that you don’t need to accept it and that it’s wrong, so it’s never a joke and it’s never a compliment, and just saying “it was banter” is not a defence. This happens all the time, because it’s so normalised, it’s seen as funny and laughed at it, but it’s not banter. And I think I’d also say that you don’t have to be the one directly harassed, it’s something you can see or hear but does not have to be directed at you.
Olivia: So for example, if like, two dudes were talking over in the cubicle over, and they were saying disgusting things, that’s still sexual harassment even if they weren’t talking or looking at you when they said it
Deeba: Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of women think a one off comment isn’t sexual harassment, but it can be, you don’t have to have experienced it for months and months before you can speak up about it
Olivia: That’s a really good point because I don’t think even I would think to report one comment
Deeba: Yeah, I can see why people don’t want to report one comment, depending on how bad the comment was, but lots of people say it’s just what he is like, that’s his sense of humour, or he’s ‘old school’ as a justification, but it’s not a justification. You have the right to not feel like that at workplace.
Olivia: Good to know. Let’s talk about allies, we love an ally, what can people do, men or women, to be the best allies they can to women who are experiencing this?
Deeba: So men – stop acting so surprised when somebody tells you this. Men are genuinely so shocked that this is the case! Maybe it’s women’s fault for protecting them from this, because you talk to a woman about sexual harassment and they yes oh yes, of course, we are aware that this is the case, but men, genuine shock. So, go and educate yourself first of all about it, and, so be a good ally, be an active bystander, don’t just turn away, we have this culture of turning a blind eye and not getting involved in other people’s business, it’s never gonna change if everybody just looks the other, so we need to treat this just as if somebody was making racist comments in the corner, you know, you’d hope lots of people would complain to HR about that, if people are making sexist comments, we’ve got to get to the point where everybody makes lots of complaints to make sexism and sexist behaviour unacceptable.
Olivia: Is there anything you want to add about the hotline?
Deeba: So, when women call us, I think it’s an amazing experience for them. First of all, everyone that calls our line, we are a ‘for women, by women’ service, so all of our operators are women and are qualified employment lawyers, so they’re specialists, they know what they’re talking about, but more than that they, they believe the women, there’s no questioning if she was overreacting which is what happen sometimes when women go to HR and are told they’re overreacting. That doesn’t happen on our line, you’re talking to someone who knows what you’re talking about and knows how to help you. The main thing we do is help women come up with a plan of action of what to do, educate them about their legal rights and hopefully by the end of the conversation they have the next steps in place of what they want to do, and they can keep calling us if they want advice at any stage, so we’re there, supporting them through the whole process, and I know they feel believed and supported.
Olivia: When do you feel most powerful?
Deeba: When I have something really big to do, like I have to talk at a major event or a big public speaking thing, I always put music on before. I’ll listen to ‘Sabotage’ by the Beastie Boys, and after that I am always ready to boss anything.
To learn more about Rights of Women, click here.