Friday, 2 November 2012

Equality works both ways

I don't know if it's because of the Jimmy Savile case, but I've heard several pieces on the radio recently about sexual harassment at work. (I know what Savile is alleged to have done is far worse than harassment, but it seems to have triggered the discussion.) I think it's important we recognize that sexual harassment exists and needs dealing with, and also that it exists in both directions.

I had to deal with three cases that could be classed as sexual harassment when I was a manager. One was by a male - a very simple one. This was in the early days of being able to display a photo on a Windows background and an employee had chosen a picture of a topless woman. It was inappropriate, caused offence and he was asked to remove it. The other two incidents were by females. One was a classic case - standing too close, inappropriate touching and suggestions - and was dealt with firmly. The other was more subtle. The offender was either very knowing or naive. Early on I had to suggest to her that a body stocking with a jacket over the top was not appropriate workwear. And later I had to point out that it wasn't ideal for her to speak to a male colleague while sitting on her desk, wearing a skirt, with her legs wide open pointing in his direction.

The reason I bring this up is that I think we do tend to treat harassment of men by women differently from the other way round. We are rightly shocked and offended when a man harasses a woman, but if a woman harasses a man it tends to be laughed off. 'What kind of a man is he?' I heard commented when someone once complained.

An extreme example of this asymmetry came up in an interview with a film star that was on the TV the other day. It turned out said (male) star lost his virginity age 15 to a woman in her forties. The response of the audience and the interviewer was not shock (for the victim) and disgust (for the predator) but rather big smiles, nudge-nudge, wink-wink - who's a lucky boy, then? Yet this is an exact parallel of the sort of thing Savile is being accused of (if on a smaller scale).

I don't think we will take any kind of sexual harassment and predation seriously enough - from the small scale comments to assault - until there is no sexual discrimination in the way such behaviour is treated. Perhaps this attitude has changed now. It's a while since I worked in an office. But I suspect it hasn't.

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