I’ll always remember the first time I encountered sexual harassment in the workplace. I was 17, new to a small company where I was the only female employee. I was encouraged by my boss to be “one of the boys” and join in with the office banter which seemed to revolve around critiquing the tits of the models in lads magazines. I shared an office with Peter, who was in his late 30’s and proudly displayed pictures of his wife and children next to his desk. Peter became really interested in finding out about my life and would quiz me on my breaks. Did I have a boyfriend? Had I had a lot of previous boyfriends? Where did I like to go out? Had I ever had plastic surgery? I felt uncomfortable with his questions, especially when I found out he was relaying my answers to the rest of the team when I wasn’t around.
Peter kept finding ways to come over to my desk, usually under the pretence of borrowing some stationery. He liked to put his hands on my shoulders and slyly look down my top or he’d reach past me and brush his hand against my chest. I started wearing high necks and baggy clothes to deter him. I told him I didn’t like having my personal space invaded but he didn’t listen. I was friendly, smiley and chatty with anyone who came into the office but when we had client meetings I’d often hear one of the guys say, “Watch out for her, she’s a maneater.” I’d blush with embarrassment and tell them to shut up but it just seemed to encourage them.
One Friday night everything changed. I was in the tiny office kitchen washing dishes when I heard Peter come up behind me. He reached in front of me to put his cup in the sink and pressed up hard against me. Even with my limited sexual experience I was aware that he was pushing an erection into my hip while breathing heavily into my ear. I froze and tried to speak but no words came out. After what felt like hours but was likely a couple of minutes Peter calmly walked out of the kitchen and went home. I felt sick and angry. What gave him the right to violate me like that? I had to speak with my boss on Monday morning. This had to stop.
On Monday I got to work early and marched straight to my Managing Director’s office, asking if I could speak to him about a serious matter. He seemed distracted but asked me to sit down. I was anxious, I had only been with the company a few months and was desperate to make a good impression. I relayed the incident on Friday and told him about some of the other comments that had made me uncomfortable. He listened calmly and didn’t look shocked when I told him about what Peter had done in the kitchen. When I was finished he asked me if I was taking some “harmless banter” too seriously. Was I normally “this sensitive” to workplace ribbing? I was dumbfounded and assured him that this was not normal workplace behaviour. He told me he’d have a meeting with the rest of the office and speak to Peter when he arrived at work.
I never saw the team meeting take place, or the meeting with Peter. When I asked my MD he told me they’d both happened when I was at lunch. For a while things quietened down, I relaxed and enjoyed my work. The guys in the office hardly spoke to me and would often whisper and point in my direction but I was busy so didn’t give it much notice. I had an appraisal coming up and was looking forward to getting feedback on my performance. When the day came I went into my MD’s office nervous with no idea what to expect. What I got was a character assassination from him and another director. I was told that my work was unsatisfactory, there had been complaints from the rest of the team about my attitude, the standard of my appearance had gone downhill, clients had complained about my telephone manner, petty cash had gone missing from the office and the blame had been put firmly on me. I was gobsmacked, particularly as none of these issues had been mentioned before that day. I was told I no longer had a place within the company and they would have to let me go. It was two days before Christmas and I was unemployed and confused.
I knew nothing about employment law, the company had no human resources department, just a couple of directors who had accused me of theft. I knew in my heart what happened was wrong and was livid but was also relieved to be out of there. My number one priority was getting another job to pay the rent. I managed to get temporary work to get me back on my feet but the whole experience left me bruised and bitter.
I would love to say this was the only time I’d ever encountered harassment in the workplace but sadly it wasn’t and I often ask myself what I’ve done to deserve it. Do I give off some signal that tells people it’s ok to be inappropriate? I am often accused of being flirty by female colleagues but that’s just the way I speak to people, male and female. I have a friendly, open nature and am a tactile person. I don’t think that entitles me to some of the comments I have had over the years.
A few lowlights:
“Are you going to unleash the beasts at the Christmas party?” asks my boss, pointing to my breasts.
During a conversation with a female colleague about hand size my manager wanders over, looks and says to me, “Your hands are massive, my cock would get lost in them.”
“How many drinks does it take to get you in the sack?”
Married colleague: “Do you have a boyfriend? I’m looking for some fun and you’d be perfect.”
I have to double check the calendar to make sure it’s the 21st century when some of the office “banter” makes me feel like I’m in an ancient Carry On film. And whilst the behaviour may not have changed my attitude towards it has, I know I have the law on my side and I’d rather piss off a few people by speaking out than leave myself open to the threat of a sexual assault.