NDAs Are Gagging Victims Of Abuse & The "Cover Up Culture" Has To Stop

Photographed by Franey Miller
When the Me Too movement started to spread, exposing a vicious cycle of secrecy and abuse, it quickly became clear that non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) were at its heart.
The most high profile cases involving the use of NDAs to cover up allegations of harassment are, of course, Harvey Weinstein and now, Topshop tycoon Philip Green. Today, though, a new report from the Women and Equalities Committee has found that the practice of asking people who have faced abuse, assault or discrimination to sign what are, in effect, gagging orders is sadly far more widespread.
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As a result, the committee is now calling on the government to act and end what they’re calling a "cover-up culture" in cases of discrimination and harassment.
Thirty-one-year-old Dr Emma Chapman, an astrophysicist who was sexually harassed by a senior male colleague at University College London but refused to sign an NDA, gave evidence to the committee.
She described how she was subjected to what she now describes as "endurable sexual harassment" over a period of "about three years".
This included "daily requests for hugs" and "intimate questions" about her personal life before she was "allowed to ask questions about work".
When she complained, Dr Chapman says she was made to feel like she was "being too English and uncomfortable". It was, she reflects, all "made into a very big joke".
In 2013, things came to a head after she returned from maternity leave with severe postnatal depression to more sexual misconduct and emotional abuse.
"It became a case of being asked to go into his office every day and it was a lot more invasive," she told the committee, "making me cry and then wanting to comfort me, telling me my husband was cheating on me, erroneously – things like that. I feel that...instead of following the correct safeguarding routes, he used my vulnerability as an opportunity to insert himself further into my life."
In August 2015, five years after the abuse began, Dr Chapman made an official complaint to UCL which, after a tribunal, resulted in her receiving a payout and being granted what's known as a 'confidentiality waiver'.
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Silence makes people think that there is no point in speaking up.

Speaking to Refinery29, Dr Chapman says she now feels compelled to speak out because "having silence around a complaint makes people think that there is no point in speaking up" about assault and harassment at work. She describes the whole ordeal as "life-altering".
"I used to use the phrase 'life-destroying'," she explains "but, happily, now I’ve reached a settlement there has been a light since I was granted the confidentiality waiver."
The impact of being asked to sign an NDA after experiencing assault or harassment should not be underestimated, Dr Chapman says.
"It was the silence that was really preventing me from moving on," she tells Refinery29. "The harassment in itself was hugely traumatic but making the complaint retraumatised me. The fallout of that was awful too. I would get phone calls with heavy breathing down the phone at 2am, there was a lot of laughing and people were being told that I was 'a liar' and 'difficult to work with'. I work in a very niche area, it’s going to be the same 50 people for the rest of my life, so breaking the silence was essential in order to talk back against that defamation and save my career."
The Women and Equalities Committee, having heard from Dr Chapman alongside other anonymous witnesses, is asking the government to take immediate action to make sure that NDAs can no longer be used to "prevent legitimate discussion of allegations of unlawful discrimination or harassment, and stop their use to cover up allegations of unlawful discrimination."
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The chair of the committee, Maria Miller MP, said that the current use of non-disclosure agreements in cases involving allegations of abuse and harassment is "at best murky and at worst a convenient vehicle for covering up unlawful activity with legally sanctioned secrecy."
For decades, NDAs have underpinned sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, undermining those subjected to it by stopping them from speaking out and coming together.
Dr Chapman is determined to change that. She now runs a campaign group against sexual harassment in academia called The 1752 Group. She is determined to continue to speak out about what she went through and help others.
"Sadly," she says, "what happened to me was shocking but average – loads of women are pushed out of their jobs like this. My lawyers have women like me coming to them on a daily basis with similar stories and we need to keep talking about it."
In a statement, UCL told Refinery29 they no longer use NDAs in these cases. A spokeswoman said:
“UCL welcomes the findings of the Women and Equalities select committee and no longer uses confidentiality clauses or "NDAs" in settlement agreements with individuals who have complained of sexual misconduct, harassment or bullying as a matter of course. We hope this sends a clear message that we will not tolerate sexual misconduct, harassment or bullying.
"Historically, UCL acknowledges that we have not always got the balance right in our attempts to support complainants. We have listened closely to what individuals told us about their experience and to our wider community of staff and students. The clear message from our community was that they did not see confidentiality clauses or "NDAs" in settlement agreements as aligned to our values.”
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.
If you are being bullied or harassed at work contact Acas.
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