Over the past couple of weeks a few incidents have caused me to feel powerless*. I don’t consider myself to be someone who is intimidated by others. Nor do I feel afraid to challenge others who make comments I don’t agree with. However, I am experiencing more and more situations that make me feel incredibly uncomfortable and frustrated.
In a professional environment I like to shake hands. It is sexist for men to kiss women on the cheek and shake other men’s hands. As my sister recently pointed out- this sexualises women in the workplace, immediately. My view alters slightly if this is a culturally influenced behaviour, in that a kiss is a greeting / introduction for both men and women. But even then, I am not really a touchy feely person and I don’t like this kind of interaction with complete strangers.
I am finding myself in situations where men have felt it appropriate to kiss me on the cheek, touch my back or use “pet names” when speaking to me. Just arghjadsfdmksk. This kind of behaviour puts myself and many others in a horrible position. You don’t want to appear rude or unfriendly by saying “woah what are you doing… get away from me!” but at the same time you don’t want to have to put up with it; and why should you!? Everyone is entitled to their own personal space. Women in particular should not have to put up with this kind of behaviour just so that we don’t appear to be “angry feminists” (not that there is anything wrong with that…).
Business is all about relationships. You need to be able to get on with people and build a reputation of being, well, a nice person. If you speak up about sexist behaviour in the workplace, are you putting yourself at risk of being perceived as “over dramatic”? Look at the controversy that surrounded Charlotte Proudman when she called out the sexist LinkedIn comment which has allegedly caused her to lose clients and business.
So what can you do about it? Unfortunately there is no easy answer. What I find difficult is how powerless these situations leave you feeling. Almost immediately I regret not saying something. Around 80% of my encounters have involved men with good intentions. They are not intending to intimidate or harass me. But that doesn’t really make me feel better. If anything it makes me angrier at our patriarchal society that has shaped the power dynamic causing men to dominate pretty much everything.
The best thing to do is to set your limits. You know what you are comfortable with and how you would like to be perceived in whatever profession / environment you find yourself. You have to bite the bullet and stand up for your independence and rights as an individual. You can’t be intimidated by the organisational culture that has been created. You have to be the change and challenge behaviour that makes you feel uncomfortable. Create space if someone leans in for a smooch on the cheek and put out your hand. Move away if someone touches you inappropriately. Call someone out if they do something you don’t like. Of course you don’t have to do this in an aggressive way and you can make it light hearted if you want to. It will probably be a little bit awkward at the time but think of it as a long term investment for yourself and equality in the workplace.
So I guess now it’s my turn to listen to my own advice and practice what I preach… wish me luck!
*Please note that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination and should be taken seriously. Some useful links & resources: