I have the great fortune to work in a team of very smart lefty feminists. Today, when we read an article stating that the TUC had found that 52% of women had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, we weren't shocked.
The article sparked a debate in the team. As I have written before, since I was young I have been frequently harassed both in and out of work. When we discussed an experience I'd had in the past, I stated I didn't think it was sexual harassment. The offender in question had made me very uncomfortable, suggesting we go on holidays or evenings out together, even calling me outside of office hours, but I didn't define it as sexual.
I'd read the definition on the Citizens Advice Bureau website which describes sexual harassment as follows:
• sexual comments or jokes
• physical behaviour, including unwelcome sexual advances, touching and various forms of sexual assault
• displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature
• sending emails with a sexual content.
I felt that I had experienced none of these things. When I have been harassed by a man in the workplace since my first real job when I was 17, he hasn't always commented on my physical appearance, or sent me sexual emails or comments, or touched me. I couldn't in my mind align the word "sexual" with the bulk of the harassment I'd received. For me, there was a very real difference between the MD in a previous job who, spying me picking up something off the floor quipped "while you're down there" and a man suggesting we hang out sometime. Put quite bluntly, in my head the word "sexual" was to do with sex. If the behaviour wasn't in some way based around physicality, then how could it be sexual?
But honestly, I was wrong. One of my colleagues stated it clearly for me. These men are treating me this way because they want to have sex with me. They are doing it explicitly because I am of the female sex. Therefore the harassment is sexual. And by putting it any other way I'm simply making excuses for men who have made me uncomfortable, scared and sad.
The problem is, because I felt their behaviour was ambiguous, I've never reported any of my experiences. In any job I've had, the unpleasant advances of colleagues have always been a blurred line for me. It follows a pattern. A colleague will strike up a friendship with me, I will be polite in return, and then soon after they will start saying things that make me uncomfortable. It becomes difficult to deal with. Yet I always find myself saying "it's fine, I'll handle it".
Because how do you define it if you're making a complaint? How do I prove this person wasn't simply being friendly? Personally, I've often felt like it wasn't worth making a complaint because "he IM'd me and I don't think it was appropriate" or "he wolf whistled at me one time when I was working late" doesn't sound like a huge deal. Whilst all of these isolated incidents felt too small to shout about, when you pile them on top of each other they become a very real and frightening problem.
I am lucky in a sense. The research from the TUC says lots of women don't report their problems because they are scared of getting fired. I've always worked in larger organisations with formal HR functions and I am certain if I'd raised this as a genuine concern, I would have been taken seriously. But I didn't want to waste anyone's time. And perhaps, more ridiculously, I didn't want to get the offenders in trouble. But how is that fair to me?
We are taught as women not to make a fuss if we can help it. That isn't right. My stomach shouldn't flip every time I risk an encounter with a person who has been inappropriate to me. I shouldn't feel I have to apologise to them because I'm not interested. I should be able to do my job every day and be respected as an equal and not be worried about whether I'm being "too polite" or "too friendly" and someone might misconstrue that as flirting.
My point is this: Someone doesn't have to be touching you to be harassing you. They don't need to be explicitly saying "I want to have sex with you" for it to be inappropriate. If their behaviour makes it unpleasant for you to go to work, then they're the ones in the wrong, not you. If someone is making you uncomfortable and you don't know what to do, talk to someone. You don't have to wait until the behaviour gets worse to take action. If you can't tell your manager or you're not sure you want to talk to your HR team just yet, talk to someone independent like the CAB or your union. I know this can be a tall order when you're not feeling brave, or you're afraid of repercussions. But we need to support each other to shout louder, to say no. Because if we don't tackle it, who will?