The #metoo hashtags which blew up all over Facebook and Twitter last week got me thinking. Female solidarity the world over was galvanised by the numerous discussions and heated debate. At last thanks to social media women from all walks of life have been given a platform to come out and share their experiences of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour by men in the work place or simply to put their hand up and be counted. Whether this will lead to change in society, discussion and action in the real world where we take control, meeting and challenging our perpetrators face to face, holding them to account for their behaviour remains to be seen.
When I first saw the hashtag I must admit I dismissed it as left wing claptrap, a bunch of feminists having a rant but the more I thought about it the more I came to realise that I too have been sexually harassed in the workplace and I should have been bold enough to stand up and be counted too, because without collective solidarity society’s attitudes will never change.
I graduated in 1987. Margaret Thatcher, the first female prime minister was in power and things should have changed for women, but they didn’t. The late 80s was a great time to enter the workforce. The economy was expanding and developing and traditional industries were in decline. There were huge opportunities for graduates to make serious money. This was the rise of the financial, service and retail sector. Large retailers cluttered the halls of the university milk round events and I was interviewed by Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Woolworths for their graduation schemes. Eventually though I ended up in credit management and worked for a few years for Amec Engineering.
I worked in the fire engineering department and we maintained the sprinkler systems of companies across the UK. I was based in an office near London Bridge. There were around seventy people working there consisting of draftsmen, project managers, accountants and engineers. There were only three women working there; myself and two secretaries. I found it fun working in a male environment.I didn’t feel intimidated and there was always lots of sexual innuendo and banter going on. When I walked past the draftsmen to go to the loo one of them always whistled or stopped to have a tease about something or one of them would tell me that I had a nice bum.
My boss sat opposite me and there were three other men close by. There was always a lot of sexual banter going on. ‘When’s she going to climb on the step ladder and get a file down so we can see that bum of hers?’ was something they often said. One day my boss and I took the train to Chestnut to visit Tesco head offices. On the train he said through spluttered laughter, ‘now this is the plan. You’ve got to flash your tits at them, then they’ll sign the deal.’ He put his hand on my knee as he said it, giving my knee a little rub. It was all a bit Sid James and at the time I found it amusing but now as I look back I see that it was all inappropriate behaviour.
But worse was to come when I moved into teaching. I didn’t imagine there would be sexual harassment in the teaching profession. It was 1993. I had recently qualified as a history teacher and got offered a full time post at a secondary school along the south coast. Within a few weeks of starting the job I found I was pregnant. I had only recently got married. I waited until I was 14 weeks and then went to see the head. I expected to take maternity leave from around 38 weeks and return to the job after a short maternity leave. The head got up from his desk and went to close the door so that we weren’t overheard. He peered at me and then mockingly said ‘and how do you think you’ll be able to work full time with a baby?’ I explained that I would employ a childminder. He said ‘that’s not a good idea. You’ve no idea what they will be like. Are you prepared to risk your baby’s life?’ I was stunned. He then said ‘how will you be able to stay late for meetings?’ And much worse ‘my wife couldn’t juggle a career and a baby, few women can.’
Incensed I went home that day and wrote to the National Union of Teachers.I told them everything the headteacher had said to me. They called a few days later and seemed very concerned. A representative held a meeting with the headteacher and my department head and then we had a meeting together. The head said that it wouldn’t be possible for me to return to my full time job as a history teacher but he could offer two days a week teaching religious studies or three days a week teaching geography but I would have to apply for these posts. The union rep seemed quite happy with these suggestions and thought the head was being fair.It didn’t seem to register with him that I wanted to teach history. That was what I was employed to teach and that was what I’d been trained to teach, not geography or RE. As I listened to the discussion I wanted to melt away and I was stifling the tears, feeling a sinking sense of helplessness around a table of all men.
Over the course of my career I went for numerous interviews and some of the interviewers blatantly disregarded the sex discrimination legislation. In one of the interviews I was asked if I could drive. I was in the process of learning and didn’t need to drive to be able to do the job. The bus service was very good. I told him that I was learning and he said ‘you need to learn to drive because how do you imagine you will ferry your children to school?’ I was only 22 at the time. Having children was the last thing on my mind! The question was bizarre and unrelated to the job.
Things have moved on a lot since the 1990s but we need to be aware of harassment and inappropriate behaviour and have the courage, as women to report things that aren’t right or make us feel uncomfortable.
Thank you for reading!