Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Groping and sexual intimidation in the office

The current news about the hideous Jimmy Savile and his career as a predatory paedophile is grotesque and appalling, but the real shock is that it seems to have been an open secret in showbiz circles.

There are now a number of people stepping forward, a year after his death, and admitting that not only did they know of his repulsive habit but they felt unable to do anything about it. In addition, many defend their decision to do nothing by saying that they couldn't prove anything or that it was just rumours.

I dare say if a few of them had put their heads together they could have found some real evidence, but sadly that didn't happen. Savile managed to escape conviction because good people stood by and did nothing.

I don't want to dwell too much on Savile because it makes me want to retch, but a new angle on this story has now raised its head and it's one that I feel I can relate to.

There are an increasing number of female celebrities - Vanessa Feltz, Sandi Toksvig and the DJ Liz Kershaw so far  - who have revealed that they were routinely 'groped' by well-known men during the course of their work in the 1980s. Kershaw also mentions that when she complained about it she was asked "Why don't you like it, are you a lesbian?"

I'm not surprised, not surprised at all. I can only speak from my own experience and say that when I started work in 1979 the first office I worked in had an atmosphere where colleagues flirted with each other and there was a bit of fooling around social nights out and Christmas parties. But it was only when I started working in a male dominated industry in the early 80s that I noticed a significant change.

In 1984 I started work as a secretary for the UK arm of a European engineering company.   I was one of about 3 women out of over 100 employees and there were a lot of sexist comments on a daily basis - but for most of the part it was all deemed to be harmless. I realise that might seem crazy to say that but it was different then. You see it wasn't seen as sexist to make comments about a woman's body, or her sexual preferences, it was just regarded as banter. And woe betide you if you complained or even rebuffed the remarks because that's when the accusations of being a lesbian or frigid would start.

Most of the time it was best to ignore it or, my preferred reaction, make a joke out of it.

After a couple of years I took on more responsibility and was promoted to a management role, which was the most senior role held by a woman in that company. I was pretty proud of myself, I was only 23 or 24 and was excited because it meant I would be doing a bit of travelling.  On one of these trips I flew to Germany with one of the directors to meet a major customer and had spent a lot of time preparing for the meeting and getting my presentation ready.

En route to Germany I was taken aback when, on the plane, the director (a married man in his 40s) suggested that we could 'save a bit of money' by sharing a hotel room. When I declined, making the only excuse I could think of "I have a boyfriend", he continued to press me to share promising he wouldn't tell anyone.  When we got to the hotel I found that he had obviously planned it as only one room had  been booked by his secretary. When I insisted on my own room he talked about how much expense I was putting the company to, and I admit I was quite worried. I thought I might lose my job.

To add insult to injury when we arrived for the meeting the next day with the customer  - a major European brand - I was told I couldn't sit in the meeting but would have to sit outside. When I asked why I was told 'we don't allow women in the boardroom unless they're serving coffee'.  So I sat on a chair in the corridor while my director went into the meeting, even though he had to come out at regular intervals to ask me about the customer's account.  Can you imagine that happening these days?

You might think this sort of thing was a one off, but it's wasn't. It was standard fare for that time, but I never once felt able to complain or do very much about it. I was ambitious, I liked my job and I didn't want to make waves in an industry where women in management roles were outnumbered. I was also a confident and strong-willed woman, but I wonder how a less confident woman would have coped.

I should point out that for most of the time I was perfectly able to cope with this 'banter' but occasionally things got out of hand. But the culture at the time was such that women were there for the amusement of men, and had to put up with it - if I had a pound for the times I heard the phrases "It's just the lads letting off some steam", "You should be flattered!" or "It's just a bit of fun" I'd be a rich woman.

It's very easy, in retrospect, to ask why women such as Liz Kershaw didn't do anything more about their workplace harassment but the 80s had different sensibilities. Not only did nobody listen, but the person who complained was usually sidelined or vilified. As is the case with many cases of sexism, the fault was placed with the woman.

This sort of thing was commonplace not so long ago, and for all I know still happens but I think that in general the workplace atmosphere is quite different to what it was then. Men are also much more aware of the laws protecting women from this sort of sexist behaviour and rightly so, and women are much more vocal about what they will accept.

As a mother of two teenage daughters I'd be horrified to think they would have to deal with some of the things I had to deal with but I think - and hope - that times have changed.

Am I being naive or have things changed for the better?