Defining Workplace Harassment

I think people often don’t quite understand the extent of sexual harassment. I used to think that sexual harassment was the same thing as sexual assault, that it wasn’t inappropriate till they laid a hand on you. It’s only recently, and through my own research that I slowly realised that actually, these are two different things. There’s definitely a lack of education about this. People don’t know how or where to draw the line about what it and isn’t appropriate. Even when I’ve tried to look it up online, there are many articles trying to educate us on the nature of what it is and less material talking about people’s experiences and how they dealt with it.

My story

I used to work for a very male-dominated company. In this company I loved the freedom of working in a ‘scale up’; things seemed cool, things moved fast, all 250 employees seemed to love working there. However, there was also things that made me uncomfortable; in the entire company (including offices in the US, Germany, UK, Slovakia) it was rare to come across a person of colour. Whilst working in Eastern Europe I had members of my team making (well-meaning??) racist comments about my appearance or ignorant assumptions about my interests. It pointed to a bigger issue that the growing company faced about inclusivity and diversity.

At this company there was a casual dress policy. Sometimes I would get comments about what I wore and I would just laugh it off, because I didn’t realise it was inappropriate. They may be complimenting you on your skirt length, or your ‘sexy’ tights but they’re saying nice things… how can that be a bad thing? Now that I look back on it, I can’t believe how naïve I was. It wasn’t until one of my co-workers literally turned round to me and said ‘how do you let them say things to you like that?!’ that I thought about it and realised that it was okay to not be okay with the way they spoke to you. Yes, it made me uncomfortable but they were saying nice things how is that wrong?

One guy seemed to take a ‘special interest’ in me. I can’t really remember if it started before the Christmas party, but I know that this is where it began to escalate. Suddenly as we’re at the bar ordering drinks, he started saying things to me that were a little more explicit, a little more risqué. I’m now tipsy and so I just brush it off. To be honest, at the beginning I’m flattered. Then he started getting more explicit, asking me to come back to his place. No, he tells me I’m going back to his place, at one point he even bit my ear. Now I’m thinking back on it, it makes me cringe and embarrassed. The night ends and as I’m saying my goodbyes he kisses me on the cheek. A goodbye kiss I guess, if there was ever such a thing at a work event. I go home, alone, and just forget about it. Even on the tube ride back home, I’m wishing that I hadn’t gone along with it so easily. Luckily the Christmas holidays are approaching and I don’t have to see him. I spend the next few days trying to avoid him at work and apart from the occasional winks that he would send me from across the room I succeed for the most part.

The company organises a company-wide conference twice every year and soon after I got back to work, all offices jetted off to Slovakia to a spa for our winter conference. Again, there’s another party and when he comes to talk to me or makes suggestive faces at me from across the room, I try to tell him I’m not interested. When I’m buying drinks he starts asking me to buy him one. I tell him no, he has his own wallet he can buy his own drinks. I’m trying to be clear. I’m trying to lay down the boundaries. He insists that he left his wallet in his room. I tell him to go upstairs and get it if he wants to buy a drink. He carries on insisting that I buy him one, and that if I don’t then I have to go with him to his room to get his wallet. Tired of his insistence I state that ‘I’ll go get your wallet with you, but I’m staying in the corridor, I’m not entering your room.’ In hindsight, that was a stupid move. We go up to his room and I stay on the opposite side of the corridor. He took his time finding his wallet, so long that I cautiously approached the door asking him what’s taking so long. This is when he tried to take me inside. Hands on my wrist he tried to get me to go to his room with him but after I insist verbally whilst trying to free myself from his grip, he let me go. Miraculously, he found his wallet soon after and I sheepishly stayed two steps behind him on the way back to the party, somehow feeling guilty that I had done or said something which led him to act inappropriately. To this day, I’m still questioning if it’s my fault. Maybe I’m painting him out to be someone worse that he was, in my eyes he was just a little creepy. But do his actions count as sexual harassment?

I left this company 3 months later, and am still disappointed that I never said anything to anyone about his actions and the words of others. In terms of the company itself, they gave me a lot and despite these experiences I still enjoyed much of my time there. I’m grateful for the opportunity I was given, but does that cancel out the bad?

This is my recollection and think of it what you will. It may not make headlines and I know for sure, that there are cases much worse than mine. But I really hope that I can just help people to understand and see that the line between right and wrong can be so easily crossed without you even being aware that you were straddling the border.

Stories:

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/03/16/upshot/responding-to-harassment-in-the-workplace.html

https://money.cnn.com/technology/sexual-harassment-tech/

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