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'I’m staring at your t*ts': why sexual harassment in the workplace continues

By Melinda Tankard Reist - posted Monday, 7 June 2010


Catching up on a pile of newspapers I came across an article titled “The only way is up” by Fenella Souter in The Age Good Weekend (May 1, 2010). I had to read it through a few times because I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Rebecca Smith - fake name because she’s “keen to keep her job”- is a junior associate in a small city law firm. She wants to advance in the company. To do that she watches cricket or tennis with the men in the boardroom, swears, talks badly about people, drinks with the men and doesn’t leave work early. They like her being “one of the boys”. But see what happens next.

At a commemorative dinner recently, she was fixing her collar and caught one of the senior partners staring at her across the table.
“Stop staring at my collar”, she chided.
“I’m not staring at your collar,” he said. “I’m staring at your tits.”
She was taken aback, but not astonished. There’s a steady stream of comments like that in the firm, she says. Usually the women try to ignore it or take it as a joke. “Mostly, the men don’t mean anything by it. They just say the first thing that comes into their heads,” Rebecca explains mildly.
Does she ever object? “One time I did say something and afterwards I walked into the boardroom and the managing partner said, 'uh-oh, here she comes, the fun police'. It’s like you’re some sort of extremist.
“I also want to become an equity partner of the firm one day and I worry that they would sit there and say, 'Well, you know, Rebecca is a bit of a femo. If we made her a partner, she might start throwing her weight around and saying we have to do everything differently.' “So the more I can play the game, the better it is for me. I know that sounds like a complete sell-out.”

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When I was a cub reporter on a country paper, working in a male-dominated environment, I encountered sexual harassment. Back then I didn’t really understand it as that or have the language to articulate it. I was barely out of my teens. Sexual remarks, inappropriate touching, a ruler up my skirt, porn on the walls of the print room ... I didn’t speak out. I wouldn’t have known if there was any recourse.

But Rebecca is living at a time when sexual harassment is recognised as inappropriate. Actually it is unlawful (see Division 3). Sexual advances (like touching, grabbing) or sexual comments (that can be offensive and/or joking) that are unwelcome or inappropriate are included in sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment contributes to a hostile work environment. I’m not saying it’s easy to speak out, and often there are repercussions for doing so. But when women don’t object, it just means men continue to get away with “staring at your tits” and even admitting to it openly. Is wanting to get ahead worth putting up with this? Is it worth the price for new women entering the firm, who will also likely be subjected to unwanted remarks and possibly more?

Fenella Souter helps to identify a reason that young women like Rebecca play the game and keep the men in the boardroom happy and entertained. It is what American author Susan J. Douglas calls, “enlightened sexism”:

Enlightened sexism insists that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism ... so now it’s okay, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women ... [It] sells the line that it is precisely through women’s calculated deployment of their faces, bodies, attire, and sexuality that they gain and enjoy true power - power that is fun, that men will not resent, and indeed will embrace ... True power here has nothing to do with economic independence or professional achievement: it has to do with getting men to lust after you and other women to envy you.
Girls and young women, especially, says Douglas, are persuaded that now that they “have it all”, “they should focus the bulk of their time and energy on being hot, pleasing men, competing with other women, and shopping ... And is women are increasingly objectified ... that’s okay because they’ve chosen to be sex objects ...”

Souter notes, “Apparently, women have achieved such completely equal status, it’s safe to go back to celebrating our ‘femininity’ and our sexiness, source of the new empowerment”.

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In Getting Real, I cite a 2006 article in The Guardian titled “Today’s ultimate feminists are the chicks in crop tops” in which Kate Taylor points out the advantages of wearing a g-string to work. It will cause men in the office to “waste whole afternoons staring at your bottom, placing bets on whether you’re wearing underwear”. You should let them, says Taylor, because you can “use that time to take over the company while they are distracted”.

The focus on bodies, clothes and sex as where our empowerment lies is acutely dissected by Laurie Penny in a piece a few days ago in The New Statesman, in which she characterises Sex and the City 2 as:

... a pernicious strain of bourgeois sex-and-shopping feminism that should have been buried long ago at the crossroads of women's liberation with a spiked Manolo heel through its shrivelled heart.
Any woman who claims not to enjoy Sex and the City is still considered to be either abnormal or fibbing, at least by a certain strain of highly-paid fashion columnist whose lives probably bear an unusual resemblance to that of the show's protagonist, lifestyle writer Carrie Bradshaw. For the young women of my generation, however, Sex and the City's vision of individual female empowerment rings increasingly hollow, predicated as it is upon conspicuous consumption, the possession of a rail-thin Caucasian body type, and the type of oblivious largesse that employs faceless immigrant women as servants ...
The type of feminism that gives serious thought to whether a girl should buy her own diamonds has missed something fundamental about the lives and problems of ordinary women ... A fantasy feminism of shopping, shoes and shagging is not an adequate response to a world that still fears women's power ...

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First published in Melinda Tankard Reist's blog on June 7, 2010.



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About the Author

Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra author, speaker, commentator and advocate with a special interest in issues affecting women and girls. Melinda is author of Giving Sorrow Words: Women's Stories of Grief after Abortion (Duffy & Snellgrove, 2000), Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics (Spinifex Press, 2006) and editor of Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (Spinifex Press, 2009). Melinda is a founder of Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation (www.collectiveshout.org). Melinda blogs at www.melindatankardreist.com.

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