With headlines in the papers saying that 52 per cent of women suffer sexual harassment at work, Child One turned to me and said, ‘did that ever happen to you, Mum?’
I remember her once asking me if it had been fun travelling by stage coach and I think this enquiry was in the same vein, the general thrust being that, as I was alive during the Dark Ages and probably knew most of the dinosaurs by name, I’d have some good tales about the days before political correctness.
But the horrible truth is that sexual harassment was very much alive and well when I did office work. I didn’t encounter it too much initially, as I worked on women’s magazines and the staff was largely female or gay. But when I worked in Fleet Street, oh my goodness, harassment was endemic. One loathsome man – his nickname was Brute – used to creep up to my desk to stick his fingers under my chin every time he saw me – why? – and of course tried to pat any part of me that stayed within range. Needless to say I avoided him at all costs, particularly in lifts.
The boss I worked with for six years routinely said, ‘while you’re down there …’ any time any female member of staff bent down even an inch. We were supposed to laugh uproariously at this (though the men didn’t find it so funny if one of the women said it while they were bending down). In another office the men graded all the women out of ten and started referring to us all by our numbers. And, it being Fleet Street in the early 90s, all this was much, much worse after lunch, when people trickled back from El Vino and work was the last thing on the agenda.
Even one of the libel lawyers, whom I rather liked, had an odd habit of bounding into our department and slapping me on the back – hard – every afternoon before he checked our page for legal issues. It hurt, so I started getting up and backing away as he came in …. it was very annoying, but you were considered a total killjoy with no sense of humour if you complained.
I think this is at least one of the reasons why I never really enjoyed The Office. If you’ve spent the day with David Brent and his ilk in real life, then watching them at home is not exactly relaxing.
The man who kept sticking his fingers under my chin stopped, though, one afternoon when I said quietly to him, if you do that again I’m going to bite your hand off. I meant it – and he stopped.
The truly depressing thing is that it’s still going on. We can’t all threaten to bite everyone. I worry about my daughters – though I like to think they’d bite pretty hard too, if they had to. But why should they have to? Have we not moved on, in 25 years? How do we get this rubbish to stop? Answers on a postcard, please.