Most of my previous work experience has been in primary schools, an environment populated mainly by women (and of course, children). Moving to an office-based job was a shock to the system for many reasons, from sitting down all day to not having to use a mug with a lid: it had its perks and perils, but I never expected what happened to happen. Now, having left the job, I look back and wonder if what I experienced was, in fact, harmless banter or full-on sexism?
Sometime in my first three months of working at the company a member of the Senior Management Team (henceforth: The Manager) referred to me as ‘This Bitch’. My first reaction was total shock. We’d always got on so well, he’d always shown me respect, I never expected it. So I told my colleagues and gauged their reaction. As well as being obviously appalled, I also learnt from them something else: this wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. Various other comments had been made, by The Manager, to other female members of staff: they had been called ‘Bitches’ and been literally barked at like dogs. I was more shocked than ever, if this had happened at any of the schools I had worked in I was sure there would have been an investigation, meetings would have been held, people would have been fired.
So, I went to my (female) Team Leader who was in the room when the
word had been said, surely she would have to do something. But alas, I was told that this was ‘just his way’, or words to that effect. And that was that, I moved on from it feeling perturbed but nothing more. Or at least, I thought that would be that. As time went on, more things started being said by The Manager (or I began noticing them more). Various members of female staff were told to ‘put slap on’ because they looked horrible when they were feeling unwell; we were told that things were ‘pretty impressive’ for our ‘tiny little woman brains’ and once again, on the last day of her first week, a female member of staff was called a ‘bitch’, this time in front of a whole room full of people. Again, nothing was done.
I could feel it spreading, the old-fashioned view of women in the workplace, from The Manager into colleagues my age, mid to late 20s, people that I considered my friends. They laughed openly at what was usually referred to as ‘banter’. Workplace banter, it sounds so innocent, fun even, but then, seven months into my employment, three things happened that broke the camel’s back.
The first thing that began to tip me over the edge was the firing of a female member of staff, one of the nicest people I will ever meet, in a very public way. Of course, there is no reason to believe that this was sexism, but it struck me very strange that none of the other (male) members of the team who were also performing as she was were fired also. The second incident happened out of the office, at an event. Another member of staff, an older female who had started two weeks previously, was called a ‘slut’ by The Manager; this angered me especially because she was older, she was more experienced and this seemed to matter. The third happened when I learned about the ‘slut’ incident. One of our colleagues had been offsite and told us on her return. There were four of us in the room: two females and two males. She told us all about the incident and to the credit of one of the guys, he was just as appalled as I was. The other man, on the other hand, did something I never expected of him and hope I never see again, he said ‘did she do this?’ and dropped to his knees.
And that was it. That was the final straw. It had spiraled out of control, the younger male members of staff were no longer just ‘having some banter’, they were being sexist. So I gathered the female members of staff who were not afraid to lose their jobs, and we went to right to the top. The other members of the Senior Management were apologetic, they were sympathetic and they dealt with the situation the only way they knew how: with a casual conversation.
I doubt anything significant will change because of this. I doubt an old man will change his ways or the young men affected by it will retreat back to their former selves. I doubt the company will enforce changes or amend their policies. But I hope that anyone reading this who isn’t sure if the people they work with are engaging in harmless workplace banter or in full-on sexism, ask yourself, what if it had been not about your sex but your race or religion? And then repeat to yourself ‘it is not OK’. Stand up for your rights as an employee and make sure you know the complaint procedure: I for one hope you never need it.