In over 30 years of work, it had never occurred to me that I could be part of a huge problem that was a simmering, bubbling cauldron of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. One that is only now reaching its boiling point and exploding (or imploding) before our eyes.
When I was growing up my Mum was my role model and without doubt where I got my work ethic from. I don’t think Mum ever actually told me I should respect women – I’d like to think I worked that out for myself – but she did teach me manners and courtesy which included things that I still do naturally to this day, like holding the door open for a female colleague, helping ladies with pushchairs on and off trains and always putting the toilet seat back down! Now there are some people who would tell you that these actions themselves are inadvertently sexist, but I would reject that on the basis that I’d still hold the door open for you and help you with the pushchair if you were a man. And I still put the toilet seat down even though I live on my own!
Over the last 30 years or so I have worked with some incredible people, many, and possibly the majority, have been female. My own management teams have tended to be largely female dominated, not because I wanted to surround myself with women like some modern day Charlie’s Angels type character, but because I wanted to surround myself with the best people possible and very often these have been female. At no point has it ever occurred to me that a female member of my team could, or should, be paid less than a man doing the same job. I have lived in mortal fear of one or two becoming pregnant, simply because they were so valuable that replacing them would be a logistical and operational nightmare but the idea that I would hire or promote a man instead to avoid that issue would never have even crossed my mind – why would it? I have had relationships with female colleagues at work but never as a result of me abusing a position of power or influence. The notion that anyone would reward a colleague with more money or a promotion in return for sexual ‘favours’ just seems preposterous – in fact I can’t even imagine how that conversation would play out! And this is where I think I might be part of the problem because these things clearly go on every day and I appear to have been largely oblivious to them.
Don’t get me wrong, I have dealt with numerous sexual harassment incidents in the workplace along with inappropriate behaviour and language and other such issues. I haven’t been living under a stone for the last three decades! However, in my world, female colleagues have always been equal. Whether it be pay, development, opportunities or support, I never saw them as anything other than employees, colleagues and friends. Furthermore I don’t believe I have ever worked for an organisation that has deliberately treated women differently or discriminated against them, openly or otherwise. In fact, every place I have worked has always been pretty hot on dealing with such issues. But when I think back to my time with one global organisation, I did notice that there was only one woman in a board position but I didn’t think to question why. I remember asking a female member of my team to come into a senior management meeting and present. This was an attractive, confident and incredibly talented young woman who walked into a room of 19 men and just one woman and thinking about it now I did notice how half the room simply checked her out instead of listening to what she had to say. The thing is I didn’t actually do anything about it, I just accepted it as normal. Afterwards I praised her on how she handled herself and for giving such a good presentation. She simply replied, “There’s too much testosterone in that room.” And she was right, there was. But the issue wasn’t that the men in that room weren’t talented individuals with plenty to offer because the vast majority were excellent at their jobs. The real issue was that in a company with a workforce that was 60% female, only 5% of the senior management team were women. Furthermore, we had a wealth of female talent at mid management level, my team alone was made up of 6 women and 2 men (75%) and at least of 2 of those women were more than capable of stepping into more senior roles. How can 75% depreciate to 5%? This is the glass ceiling they talk about isn’t it? Why did I not even realise it was an issue?
So, to my mind, because I have never really seen that there was a problem, I think I might actually be part of the problem and one thing that my work with Next Steps HR has shown me is that the problem of ‘everyday sexism’ is very real.
Our MD, Neena Sharma recently guested on a number of local BBC radio stations answering questions on the subject of sexual harassment in the workplace. Each of these interviews prompted a flood of calls and messages to the stations with people wanting to share their own experiences. One lady had been putting up with wholly inappropriate sexual attention for over a decade – too scared to tell anyone because she didn’t think she would be believed, the barmaid who was groped by male customers when collecting empty glasses who was told by her boss (also female) that it was part of the job and she should get used to it, the young man who worked in an otherwise all female office, who quietly put up with constant comments about his ‘size’ and sexual prowess. Young women being told how to dress to impress clients, sly touches and comments…the calls just kept on coming and sitting at home I was horrified at how many of these scenarios I recognised – things that I had seen countless times over the years and never really noticed (or subconsciously chosen to ignore) – and most importantly how they impacted the lives of real people. One thing that really stood out for me though was that the overwhelming majority of people said nothing because they didn’t feel confident coming forward, either because they wouldn’t be believed or because they felt their confidence would be betrayed, or that it would make things worse.
The fact that it happens is bad enough, the fact that people don’t speak out because they are too frightened to do so is criminal. And so it was during one of Neena’s interviews that the concept of offering a low cost, independent and completely confidential employee hotline service to businesses and organisations was formed. The aim was simply to provide a high quality service at such a low price that virtually any business can afford it, a service that allows anyone to speak up about what is happening to them or what they are seeing happening to others, a service that prevents anyone suffering in silence. It also has the added advantage of allowing people to come forward about other issues such as theft, fraud, bullying, whistleblowing and so on….all without fear of being identified.
Next Steps HR now offer an employee hotline service from just £25 per month for businesses with up to 50 employees (larger businesses just pay a few pence per extra employee). For this our clients get a dedicated Freefone number for their employees to call where our highly trained HR team are waiting to take the details. During testing one HR Director told me this: “At £300 for a year, I honestly can’t think of one good reason why every company in the country wouldn’t sign up unless they were scared of what might come to light, which in itself would be a damn good reason to sign up.”
We haven’t really launched this service to make huge amounts of money – if we had it wouldn’t be £25 a month! The aim is to give employees the confidence and security of anonymity to come forward and to help protect employers from the risks of turning a blind eye or in my case, just being blind. Back to my HR Director who also quite rightly pointed out that nobody thinks there is a problem in their business until they discover they have one, by which time it is probably already costing them a small fortune.
So, in summary, whilst I may inadvertently have been part of the problem, I hope that in some small way I can contribute to being part of the solution. If just one barmaid who is being told by her manager to accept being groped as part of the job, is able to speak up instead of walking out, then it will have been worthwhile.