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Padraig O'Morain: Banter's okay...just think before you open your mouth

Does the sacking of Andy Gray by Sky Sports, and the departure of Richard Keys mean the workplace has become a minefield in which men must be extra careful about what they say regarding female colleagues?

Does it mean that the old workplace pastime of men and women slagging each other off must be laid to rest?

Can colleagues even compliment each other on their appearance without being accused of ulterior motives?

No, I don't believe the age of banter and fun is at an end. The attitude displayed by Gray and Keys went a long way beyond slagging. They would appear to belong to that small segment of men who believe that women should stay in their place -- namely the kitchen or the bedroom.

The sort of banter, often with sexual references, that goes on between men and women in the workplace is a different thing. It taps into an age-old competition between the sexes and indeed into an age-old human habit of making jokes about gender and sex.

Women can be just as enthusiastic as men about indulging in this kind of humour -- perhaps more enthusiastic sometimes, because they are less likely to be accused of sexism. We have all either heard or made the remark by now, "If a man said had that he'd be in trouble."

What is out of order are sexist remarks implying that women should not be in the workplace.

In the world of Andy Gray and Richard Keys you would not expect women to get very far in sports and you might suspect that they would not get very far in careers outside of sports either.

That's the really toxic nature of their attitude -- namely that it's an attitude that limits women's life choices on no other basis than that they are women.

All that said, it isn't always a simple matter to work out what is or is not okay.

Pictures of naked women have disappeared from the walls of most workplaces. Yet both men and women forward images by email for a laugh, that some people would consider offensive.

If you were asked to write the rulebook for what is actually acceptable, you would probably end up staring at a blank sheet of paper for a very long time.

The question of men and women slagging each other off in any particular workplace is a matter of judgment, of how well they know each other, whether this sort of joking is accepted in the workplace.

For instance, slagging and sexual innuendo between two people giving as good as they get is one thing. The same behaviour directed towards somebody who is offended and upset by it would be regarded by most people as bullying.


In a sense, the acceptability of gender-based slagging is down to whether the people doing the slagging have a fundamental respect for the other person's right to be there. If the attitude is that you should not be there because you are a woman and a man, then the slagging becomes unacceptable.

That doesn't mean humour must be banished from the workplace.

The tricky part is knowing when you are crossing a line.

The only advice I can give is that banter and slagging between the sexes in the workplace should be based on a fundamental mutual respect -- and that the brain as well as the mouth should be involved.