Every year in October my employer does a survey of all staff to do a healthcheck of the team’s experience. Every year I pause over two questions: in the last year have you personally experienced discrimination/bullying or harrassment? I pause not because I’m trying to decide whether to click yes, but because I ask myself how many instances of discrimination and harrassment I would report if I had the chance. And each year my employer clutches its pearls in horror when it sees the survey resuls on these two questions, without ever doing anything to address the underlying causes.
My dilemma is particularly acute this year, as the survey rolls out against the backdrop of the allegations and revelations about Harvey Weinstein. It’s sadly still all too common that so many of us are experiencing discrimination and harassment. But what is truly shocking is that it has become so normalised for so many of us that we often just treat it as part of the background noise of life that we have to deal with, while the rest seem genuinely surprised that it’s still an issue. After all, we have equality now, don’t we?
To give you just one example of something that happened to me within the last year –
I was attending a work event with some key stakeholders. There was an evening dinner. I found myself sat next to a senior person in that organisation that I’d not met before that day. He tried to get me drunk, asked intrusively personal questions, ‘admired my necklace’ (code for staring at my breasts) and then propositioned me. I made my excuses and left.
Some will no doubt suggest I should be flattered by the attention. That I’ve ‘still got it’, whatever that means. Others will laugh if off as just one of those things that happens. Or, worse, deny it ever happened. Surely I must be imagining it or making too much of a fuss about it?
But this is a failure of basic, respectful treatment of others. I have to have a working relationship with this person, but they’ve added an uncomfortable sexual dimension to it. I’m now left having to manage that dynamic, trying to keep things professional and make sure to avoid circumstances where I could find myself facing the same situation again. I now have a whole plan to make sure I never have to sit next to him at dinner again. And instead of focusing all my energy on work, when we are in the same place I will need to expend a good proportion of it managing the interpersonal dynamic, shutting down further overtures from him (yes, there have been some).
It also exposes the shocking sense of entitlement that some people feel. They see nothing wrong in behaving this way. In part that is because it is so rarely challenged. We let it play out as if there’s nothing wrong with it. Or else it takes place away from the public gaze, so that those in a position to act never see what is really happening.
[I’m not saying it’s never possible to make an intimate connection with someone you meet professionally. But it’s tricky territory and I’d urge you to get to know the person first and be damn sure there’s mutual attraction before raising the prospect of anything else. If you make a habit of propositioning people you’ve just met or who are patently not interested, you’re a creeper, and it’s not my job to educate you about how not to be one.]
In many ways, this kind of obvious and overt harassment is easy to deal with because it’s so obviously beyond the pale. What is much harder to deal with is the insidious kind of discrimination. The differential treatment. The mansplaining. The being talked over, marginalised and ignored. The unconscious bias that creates a culture of Great Men doing Great Things, while the women do the office housework that will never make their careers.
In all those cases there’s plausible deniability. You are left wondering whether you are imagining that you’re being treated differently or whether there’s some other cause, like that you’re just not good enough. And while each incident may be a mix of complex cause and consequence, it’s highly likely that there’s something gendered going on under the surface, whether those responsible realise it or not. But the net result is that you are left doubting yourself or fighting a system stacked against you.
Of course, I’m relatively lucky. I’m a woman, but I’m also white, heterosexual and without disabilities. So I don’t have the multiple, intersecting areas of difference that enable a much more multi-faceted experience of harassment and discrimination.
I hope that if some good is to come out of the current debate it is a greater awareness of the need for respectful and inclusive spaces that are free of this kind of harassment and discrimination, and the need to tackle the power structures and institutions that have enabled permissive environments to thrive.