Sunday 22 September 2019

Office space: how to deal with sexual harassment

The fallout from the Harvey Weinstein case makes it clear: unwanted advances are far from rare. Tanya Sweeney - herself a one-time victim - asks the experts how to cope

Speaking out: Rose McGowan says she was assaulted by Harvey Weinstein. Photo: AP
Speaking out: Rose McGowan says she was assaulted by Harvey Weinstein. Photo: AP

Tanya Sweeney

One of the more shocking aspects of the Harvey Weinstein allegations of sexual harassment is how shocked everyone is at the movie mogul's actions. As the #metoo hashtag trending on Twitter demonstrates, millions of women have experienced something similar. And you don't need to be a beautiful young actress like Rose McGowan to find yourself in an uncomfortable position.

At 24, I was a lupine-hungry newcomer into the London music industry: desperate to break into film soundtracks. One day, a producer contacted me for a meeting at a hotel and when I arrived at the multi-room suite, two other men were in attendance, as was the (very oily, cheap-suited) producer.

We got to talking about the plot of the movie, and the producer stuck on one particular sex scene, describing what the actors would do in eye-watering detail for what felt like hours. I kept my face neutral, ignoring the knowing smirks of the others. I thought I needed to be cool with this stuff to pass muster.

In time the others left and the producer moved his 'paperwork' into an anteroom closer to the bed. We started talking money and most thrillingly of all, how he would be happy to give me 10pc of the movie's overall budget to work with.

Gesturing toward the bed, he made a sort of 'up for it?' proposition. I laughed it off, only for him to reiterate more firmly. Only then did I realise no one knew where I was. "Carry on like that and you'll never get anywhere in this industry," he scoffed. A red mist descended and I screeched about how I would make it on my own steam.

Luckily, he just shrugged as I bolted for the door. I never told anyone about it, mainly because it was the late 90s and these things seemed almost, well, normal. In my naïveté, I thought that telling someone might seem like a backhanded compliment to myself - that I thought I was so gorgeous, a film producer could barely contain his urges.

Elsewhere, Kildare native Sally (not her real name) had been an efficient executive assistant to the CEO of a software company back in the early Noughties. One night, he called an 'emergency meeting' at 11pm. "We went through everything and as he was leaving, he lunged at me up against the wall," she says. "He was an 'old' 36-year-old married man with back problems and kids. I never saw him as attractive and naively assumed he felt the same. He was angry and then embarrassed. I told him I never saw him in any light other than my boss and reminded him he was married."

A day later, he went on a business trip: "During that time he sent a number of instant messages and Hotmail messages saying he was thinking of me and he had picked me up some Victoria's Secret and to drop into him when he got back."

Sally went to his office and told him to stop. A week later, she found herself as a surprise addition on a redundancy list. She sought legal advice: "He said to drop it, that it wasn't worth it. No one would take my word over his, and no one would touch me with a bargepole if I ever wanted to get hired again."

Fortunately, things have changed for the better in the workplace. Training is widely available not just for employees on the receiving end of harassment, but those who need to be aware of workplace protocol, or those in positions of authority.

"There's a real fear around this," observes workplace coach Jane Downes of Clearview Coaching. "People worry about being seen as a difficult employee if they spill the beans."

Yet while accusations against famous men like Harvey Weinstein have forced an international dialogue, many are none the wiser as to what to do if or when they are sexually harassed at work. "The good news is that you can assert yourself correctly in the right way if someone at work meets your own boundary line," says Jane.

Leonie O'Dowd offers workplace training on behalf of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and finds that many people (mainly women) would approach her with their own experiences of harassment.

"The thing I heard a lot is from women who have been in the workplace for a long time, that when they were young, they didn't call it harassment," she says. "Being touched or receiving a comment about your dress or figure was an everyday occurrence. It used to be perfectly acceptable in the workplace and nowadays things are more furtive, happening in a private office or in a one-on-one capacity. And that makes it almost harder to deal with, as there are no witnesses."

Leonie notes that being aware of what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace is a good place to start. "Anything that makes someone uncomfortable is beyond banter," she says. "People feel under pressure sometimes to join in and they worry about being seen as over-sensitive. It's only when people are given the chance to discuss it afterwards, that they know. People do meet their partners in the workplace, but if a person has more power within an organisation, it's really not okay," she adds. "If they're senior to you, it really shouldn't happen. If you ask someone out and you refuse, or you break up, and they are still pressuring you to become romantically involved, that's a problem.

"And if you are at a Christmas party of working off-site, if someone puts their hands on your body without your consent, that's an assault and this is a crime."

Adds Jane: "The best thing to do is to remain professional and factual. If this is a serious case, seek legal advice."

What both women are in agreement about is that the allegations levelled at Weinstein are finally blowing the dialogue open for everyone. With any luck, they will encourage people to speak out, confident they will be heard. "The one thing you must not do is do nothing," says Leonie. "Where sexual harassment in the workplace is allowed to persist, it never stays the same. It only ever escalates."

Irish Independent

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