Friday 18 August 2017

Office or old boys' club? Why sexism is still at home in the workplace

The PwC 'Top 10' email is just the latest sex story to grab our attention, writes Deirdre Reynolds

cast of TV's 'Mad
The cast of TV's 'Mad Men'
Deirdre Reynolds

Deirdre Reynolds

It could have come straight from the script of Mad Men: a sleazy office circular in which male workers vote on the most attractive new female recruits to the company.

Except the anachronistic incident didn't occur on the set of the hit US TV show which is set in the 1960s -- it happened just last month in the offices of one of the most respected financial institutions in Ireland, indeed the world.

Accountancy giant Price WaterhouseCoopers was left red-faced last week after details of sexist emails bouncing between up to 17 male employees at its Dublin headquarters emerged.

Now swirling around cyberspace as far afield as the US, the infamous 'Top 10' chain email rated the looks of 13 first-year accountancy trainees who had recently joined the firm.

And click by click, the intra-office conflab -- which was subsequently forwarded to other finance companies, accountants, law firms, construction firms and state bodies -- accumulated derogatory comments.

For young professional women across the country, such Benny Hill-style behaviour is far from an anomaly -- but knuckle-dragging Don Drapers can be found in offices throughout Ireland every single day.

"I wasn't a bit surprised by the PwC story," says Louise* (27), who works in a Dublin financial institution. "The guys in my workplace often play 'Shag, Marry, Kill' -- where they pick out three women in the company and discuss which one they'd shag, which one they'd marry and which one they'd kill. I'm usually on the 'Kill' list -- but hopefully that's only because I'm a manager!

"They also score female colleagues on their hotness and have a constantly changing shortlist -- it's pretty pathetic for guys in their twenties and thirties."

"A couple of years ago, I worked in a purchasing company that was very male-dominated," adds Siobhán* (28) from Meath. "Walking through the warehouse, the men would wolf-whistle and stare at female staff going by. Wearing a skirt to work was a complete no-no.

"I worked there for two years and only wore a skirt once, as the one time I did I got asked if I was wearing any knickers."

Last year, Ireland ranked eighth in the world for gender equality in a report by The World Economic Forum. Nonetheless, sex wars continue to rage in the workplace here.

In June 2006, 13 employees of financial management company Merrill Lynch in Dublin were sacked over a seedy email sent to a client of the company.

Meanwhile, the Health and Safety Authority ordered a 62-year-old Limerick garage owner to take down "pornographic" calendars of topless models hanging in his workshop.

It's not the first time PwC has landed in scalding water over claims of sexism, either.

In 2008, British businesswoman Christina Rich received €2.4m from the firm in one of the biggest ever sexual harassment payouts. Despite earning €470,000 a year as the highest-paid partner in PwC's Australian office, the financial adviser quit claiming her life was made hell by the 'boys' club' culture that prevailed there.

For working girls watching Bridget Jones's Diary, the character Mr Fitzherbert -- nicknamed 'Mr Tits-pervert' in the film -- may be all too familiar.

"Because of the field I'm in, I've worked in plenty of places with an 'old boys' club' vibe," says science graduate Kate* (32) from Kildare.

"In my current workplace, I've heard senior male management openly making fun of other female managers -- laughing at their opinions and joking that they must be having their 'time of the month'. I've also heard male bosses tell female staff who've returned from maternity leave that they should be at home looking after their baby.

"It's no surprise that tabloid newsrooms are extremely male-dominated sexist environments," adds Michelle* (29), a researcher from Galway, "but I think the bar is a lot lower than people realise. Many of the senior editors speak about women who appear in the publication like they are pieces of meat and this tends to spill over into how they treat their female co-workers.

"One morning when I came into work, a senior staff member shouted across the newsroom in front of everyone: 'Your skirt's a little tight today, isn't it?' I just sat down in shock and embarrassment.

"I wasn't the only woman targeted -- another girl was told to 'Bend over' in order to get her leaving present.

"I was appalled at how my boss just allowed this type of behaviour to go on and encouraged us girls to laugh it off," adds Michelle. "I was a rookie reporter at the time and afraid of losing my job, but I would never tolerate being treated like this again."

Across the pond, US President Barack Obama was forced to apologise for calling a female TV reporter "sweetie" during his drive for the Oval Office in 2008. And in 2007, love rat Jesse James paid out more than $700,000 in a sexual harassment settlement with a former West Coast Choppers executive who accused the hardman of hitting on her.

Here at home, however, professional women can feel cornered into taking a 'put up and shut up' approach towards caveman colleagues -- especially in an era of lay-offs.

"You either have to adapt and become 'one of the lads' or get left out in the cold," reckons science professional Kate. "If you complain and action is taken, the rest of the men in the office are wary of you and it can make working relationships strained."

"I never complained," agrees Siobhán of her slack-jawed male co-workers. "I just learned my lesson."

"I worked in a nightclub in Dublin where the bouncers would talk enthusiastically about my 'Twins'," says Jenny* (29). "It was done in a joking way, so I never really felt I had the right to complain. Still, I don't think guys in the States would get away with that type of thing."

Like Michael Douglas in Disclosure, however, increasingly men have become the victims of sexual harassment as much as the perpetrators.

Duke University graduate Karen Owen became an unwitting internet sensation after a Powerpoint presentation rating the male students she had slept with went viral earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Britney Spears has been sued by former bodyguard Fernando Flores, who's accused the singer of "repeated unwanted sexual advances" -- something the 28-year-old mum denies.

Accountant Carl* (32) from Dublin was on the receiving end of unwanted smut at work.

"One of the secretaries developed a crush on me and it got to the point where I had to avoid her around the office," he tells.

"She would openly proposition me and when saying goodbye she would come in for a kiss on the lips. She's married with children, so it just made me feel really uncomfortable.

"On another occasion, a male manager put his hand on my ass on a night out and suggested I stay over at his house while we were on an audit.

"At the time I treated it as a joke, but thinking about it afterwards I was quite angry," he adds. "If it was a girl, they wouldn't dare do something like that.

"Even though I would have been perfectly entitled to complain in both cases, as a guy you don't feel able to make a big deal about it -- it's seen as a bit wimpy.

"Now I just have a laugh about it over a pint with my mates."

So in today's ultra-PC world, is there any such thing as harmless flirtation by the watercooler any more?

"The definition of sexual harassment hasn't changed since it was first enshrined in law," says Brian Merriman of The Equality Authority. "Sexual harassment is any form of unwanted conduct -- whether verbal, non-verbal or physical. Basically, it's anything that creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading or humiliating environment at work."

In spite of recent headlines, he argues: "There's absolutely no evidence whatsover that there's a sexual harassment epidemic sweeping the workplace here. In 2009, The Equality Authority handled 18 cases of harassment -- just 3 of those were for sexual harassment.

"Nonetheless, it's incumbent on the employer to set out clear guidelines as to what's suitable and unsuitable behaviour in the workplace -- otherwise macho culture could dominate and make other's lives a misery."

*Names have been changed

Irish Independent

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