I once wrote a column for BRW in which I expressed ambivalence about a sexual harassment survey which showed an alarming incidence of aberrant behaviour in the workplace. My concern was the survey’s wide selection of behaviours that constituted sexual harassment. This, I argued, trivialised what was a demonstrated and serious issue in the workplace. The gist of my conclusion was: we know there is a problem, so instead of yet another survey of dubious robustness, let’s get on with fixing the problem.
Upon publication I was contacted by one of my female colleagues at Fairfax, someone I held in very high regard personally and as a journalist.
She explained that women were concerned by what might appear inconsequential behaviours – a remark passed off as humour, a light touch on the shoulder – because these women had very likely faced far more egregious behaviour during their working lives.
One might be more forgiving of workplace cut and thrust if that were the extent of behaviour to be tolerated by women. But “harmless” banter might take on a completely different hue if taken in the context of behaviour that is rooted in more sinister attitudes of male entitlement and the relative place of women in the workforce and indeed society.
Women who have been groped on public transport, propositioned by strangers while walking down the street or assumed to be “available” simply because they choose to be in a bar or café alone have every reason to be less patient with the axiom that “boys will be boys”.
It is a forlorn hope that the workplace provides women with sanctuary from the realities of the outside world. For no matter how collegiate and professionally fulfilling a workplace might be, the sad truth is that attitudes in the workplace are a mirror image of attitudes in the wider community.
An incident no male journalist would find himself in
My friend, who gently suggested that my column lacked empathy, confided in me an experience, not an isolated one, which took me aback.
She recounted an occasion when she, a prominent journalist, was interviewing a prominent CEO (whom she did not name) in his office who not only propositioned her but briefly mounted a chase around the boardroom table. Now, she is someone who can well take herself and she managed to defuse the situation, but the ordeal would have been no less objectionable not to say terrifying.
I was aghast. This was an incident that no male journalist would find himself in. Many thoughts raced through my mind. How many other female journalists have had such experiences? What if it had been a junior or less composed journalist in this case – how traumatic would such an experience be? How many other women had this CEO threatened and very possibly scarred? And what impact must this CEO have had on his company’s culture and attitudes to women in his workplace?
My column, taken in a vacuum, might have made perfect sense. But sexual harassment does not occur in a vacuum.
It is behaviour founded on prejudice, bias, discrimination, misogyny and entrenched attitudes of male entitlement, power and privilege. “Just a joke” starts to sound pretty thin in such a charged – and manifestly inequitable – context.
Of course there are those women who can hold their own and give as good as they get. But although their lines of tolerance may be further down the track, they are no less subject to toxic work cultures for women – for example, when it comes to career advancement.
A decent, respectful workplace ensures that all employees, from the most junior to the most senior, are valued, empowered and heeded. A workplace founded on dignity and respect is no less disposed to being a place of amity, good humour and vibrancy – indeed is more likely to be such a workplace – which is to debunk those who charge that “do-gooders” would turn workplaces into mausoleums.
If the more ardent proponents of sexual harassment-free workplaces have set the bar very high for what constitutes such a workplace, it is because women have had to endure so much for so long simply and only because they are women.
Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Twitter @DAngeloFisher