On this day…
On this day, one year ago exactly I was on my way into work. I had just started my new job in an organisation that requires security at the entrances. I have an ID badge that allows me to go in and out of the building without being stopped.
On this particular March day it was cold and I was running late. I ran to the gate and flashed my badge at the man standing before me, whom I did not recognise, wearing a balaclava over most of his face and a hat pulled down so only his eyes were visible in his large frame.
I flashed my badge and tried to continue at my (admittedly unfit and quite slow) running pace.
An arm came out and stopped me.
“Excuse me, stop there, can I see that badge?”
I stopped and waited, slightly hopping from foot to foot, anxious to get in. I don’t know if you, reader, are a late person but I am. I am constantly battling the passing of time and losing. I am permanently overly optimistic about how much (or rather, how little) time something will take me and I am frequently anywhere from slightly to hugely annoyed with myself for not remembering that traffic lights, traffic, other people, bus stops and public transport problems exist. Oh and of course it takes more than 2 minutes to get to most places.
He held my badge, studied my face carefully and sternly, scrutinised my badge, stared at my face again and a minute later I realised who was standing in front of me – it was the head of security.
“Dude*,” I said (except I didn’t call him *dude, I called him by his name but you know, identity protection). ” What are you doing? You know who I am. You printed my badge.”
“Yeah I know,” he replied. “I just wanted to keep you here to look at you longer because you’re beautiful.”
“Ugh,” I snorted back. I snatched my badge back and quickly walked into work, now that I was allowed to, feeling my skin crawl from his eyes on me watching me walk away.
It bothered me all day. I got on with the business of learning new things about the company, my job, processes, people, politics…but in the back of my mind it nagged. I felt weirdly protective of myself, like a safe space had been violated. The thing is, I wasn’t sure what it was. It was that murky in-between territory. Was it banter? Flirting? He didn’t touch me. But he didn’t have to – I still felt my arms go up around me as if to hug myself.
I talked to a friend about it at lunch and that confirmed it for me – it wasn’t banter. It wasn’t flirting. It was unwarranted, uncalled for, unasked for, permission not requested or given, sexual harrassment.
Get yourself ready because it’s fun facts and statistics time!
1 in 3 American women experience sexual harrassment according to research performed by Cosmopolitan who surveyed 2,235 full-time and part-time female employees aged 18-34 and found that one in three women has experienced sexual harassment at work at some point their lives (OK I know Cosmo isn’t exactly the go-to reliable news source but a poll is a poll guys).
In the UK it’s not better.
“Researchers from the Trades Union Congress and the Everyday Sexism Project found that 52% of women had experienced unwanted behaviour at work including groping, sexual advances and inappropriate jokes. Among women and girls aged 16-24, the proportion reporting sexual harassment rose to 63%.” – The Guardian, 10.08.2016
So in other words the younger you are, the more naive, the more vulnerable, the less well-equipped you are to deal with something as intimidating as sexual harrassment from someone in authority, the more likely it is to happen to you if you dared to be a girl / woman / female and enter the workplace (or leave the house and walk on the street, but that’s a whole other issue with its own set of depressing statistics. One issue at a time guys.)
I went back to the office after lunch, this time with no hassle because a different person was on the door. That afternoon I had a meeting with one of my managers. We sat and after a few minutes I ummed and errred a bit and eventually said “I’m not sure what this is and I don’t want to get anyone in trouble if it’s nothing but…” and I told him.
He looked horrified, apologised profusely for the behaviour of the person in question and asked me to put it in writing along with 2 other incidents that had made me uncomfortable. Together they formed a picture of a person in a position of authority abusing his position to sexually harrass a young, female new employee. My manager took me seriously, took notes, apologised, assured me it was not in the ethos of the company and offered to walk me into the office for the rest of the week to ensure I felt safe.
I could not have had a better experience reporting this issue and I cannot stress enough how important it is that more women must come forward when things like this happen. I was lucky that it wasn’t someone in a managerial position who was my direct line manager. I was lucky that I had a safe person to report it to, who took me seriously. I was lucky that the organisation is an absolutely glowing example of how we can and should look after employees, treat them equally whatever their gender, sexual orientation or identification, race, background, health or abilities.
It turned out I had opened a can of worms. This person had bothered other young women who worked at this organisation and they started to come forward. Following a separate issue we happened to have a session from a human rights lawyer on employment law and rights in the workplace. We were told that when someone is harrassed and they report it, one of the key things that happens after as a result, is victimisation – further bullying after the harrassment.
My job was made harder. The man in question was so angry that I had reported him and he had been reprimanded. I had asked to remain anonymous but due to the specific nature of the problem and part of his warning in how he should be treating female employees, particularly me, it was unfortunately clear that I had reported him. He began to refuse legitimate requests that I made for things that I needed to do my job. He made it harder for me to do any part of my job that he could have an effect on and he became rude and unpleasant when I had to interact with him. Before I had wanted to avoid him in case he made me feel uncomfortable, now I dreaded every interaction with him.
Eventually, after I made a second complaint and other women in the office came forward with their own complaints against him, he “was reassigned” somewhere else and someone new came in. Things improved and the workplace felt safe again.
When I told a couple of people what happened they asked me why it wasn’t OK to call me beautiful, told me I was overreacting and said that it seems ridiculous that you can’t meet people at work any more.
This is what I said to them:
This is a man in a position of authority – he can, if he wants to, stop me coming into work but he shouldn’t without a valid reason. He can stop any person coming into the building if he feels they are a threat to the security of the people in the building. He stopped me coming in so he could look at me. So he could objectify me. So he could assert his authority over me. Because he thinks I’m beautiful. This is in my place of work, where I come to be professional and do my job. That’s not flattering, it’s controlling and it’s an abuse of his position. That’s not the same as asking me, asking if I want to go for a drink sometime because he’d like to get to know me better. Here’s how that conversation goes:
Him: Hey, I think you’re great and I’d like to get to know you better. Would you like to go for a drink?
Me: No thanks, I’m not really interested in you like that and I prefer to keep my work life professional.
For me, there’s no problem asking once and seeing if you get an answer that is positive, as long as you accept that the answer might be negative.
Calling me gorgeous, sexy or beautiful in my workplace reduces me to my physical appearance. And I might be all those things but calling me that where I work undermines my position as a professional and worse, it does so while hiding behind the guise of a compliment or banter, making it harder for me to complain when I feel uncomfortable.
I didn’t overreact. I spoke up when a situation was created to put me in a position of discomfort and take away my voice. I said something when I was made to feel small and vulnerable and I didn’t let the person actually make me feel those things. I made myself bigger and louder and as a result, other women felt they were able to as well. I took more bullying for it but it feels oddly worth it. I led by example, I didn’t back down and in doing so I gave other women permission to speak up for themselves too.
So on this day, International Women’s Day 2017 I ask my fellow awesome women to look after yourselves, look after each other and remember every time you stand up for yourself against something that is sexist and unfair, you smash the patriarchy a tiny bit more.