Like many women, I too have experienced inappropriate sexual comments and “jokes” in the workplace. My first introduction to workplace sexual harassment happened when I was in my early twenties. I was excited about a new job that paid better than my last and gave me more responsibility. I desperately wanted the position because I was living on my own and it might give me a chance at a better life.
It wasn’t long after I arrived that I was schooled about the uncomfortable treatment of female staff. I was told who to watch out for and given lessons on “the way things work around here.” There were examples of back stabbing and strategic alliances within the office but nothing was as bad as the way some of the men treated women and the double standard within the organization.
Many of the uncomfortable looks, sexual innuendo and comments would come right after the guys would get back from their very extended lunch breaks at the strip bar down the street. (Female staff were chastised if they were even 10 minutes late from breaks) I hated taking anything to the desks of these guys after they returned back from lunch because I knew the stupid banter would be more ramped up than usual. The face of one co-worker is still in my memory as he was particularly gross and often cruel – especially if you didn’t smile and laugh at his comments.
Efforts by some long-time female staff members to talk with management about their male coworkers’ behaviour failed to change anything and my attempts to do the same got me on the bad list too. It was clear that this place had a lot of problems so eventually I quit.
How do we stop sexual harassment?
Establishing policies is a necessity but policies aren’t enough. Most companies have codes of ethics and anti-harassment policies that are only strong if they are followed. Directing employee complaints to Management or a Human Resources Department can also be helpful as long as they’re not part of the problem.
Some companies bring in educators to teach staff and management about sexual harassment. Facilitating workshops on civil communication, respect and empathy can work because not everyone has developed those skills or been given those tools early in life.
Contact Outside Agencies For Support
If talking with the harasser, management or supervisor hasn’t worked then consider registering complaints with Human Rights Commission, Union Representative, Call Dial-A-Law for legal information or phone an Employment Lawyer directly. Reaching out to law enforcement agencies may be necessary depending on the severity of incidences.
Teach Your Children A Better Way
We have the possibility of changing all of this by teaching children about respect for self and others.
I also think it’s important for us to analyze how boys are introduced to women and sexuality. This can shape their understanding of who girls/women are, how they wish to be treated and appropriate language when speaking with and about girls/women. Reinforcing positive and respectful behaviours now can change a generation.
Boys and men need to care about this issue just as much as women. Understand, identify and call it out when they see sexual harassment
Girls need to learn about the pivotal role the word “NO” will play in their life. Gavin De Becker said it best in his book The Gift of Fear – Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence, when he wrote, “No” is a word that must never be negotiated, because the person who chooses not to hear is trying to control you. Harassers look for weakness and ways to control.
Building self-esteem and committing without apology to values is a solid step forward for girls. Above all girls and women can be assertive AND know that being a victim of sexual harassment is not their fault.
Back in my twenties I felt compelled to put up with so much because I needed a job and I’d been conditioned to believe this treatment was normal. I eventually developed my voice and began to flex my assertiveness (and occasional aggressive) muscle. It hasn’t always been easy but knowledge has become power.