By Anj Handa

You can’t have missed the press coverage about Harvey Weinstein. He’s the American film producer and former studio executive who abused his position of power by sexually assaulting women. His is a high-profile case but he’s by no means the only influential man in Hollywood to do so.

His case has generated a wave of posts across social media with the hashtag #metoo to demonstrate the magnitude of the issue. But it’s not just the media sector that has a problem.

Sexual Harassment and the Law

Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. In a recent case, the UK Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) ruled that a solicitor and his firm must jointly pay over £20,000 to a female employee in a case of sexual harassment. The figure includes £14,000 for injury to feelings, aggravated damages of £4,000 and loss of earnings of £2,111, plus interest. You’d think he’d know better… Evidently not.

My Personal Experiences

During my early career, I worked in IT recruitment between London and Frankfurt. I and a handful of female counterparts were hugely outnumbered by hormonally-charged 20-something male colleagues and older, wealthy male Directors (including the infamous uncle of Kate Middleton, but that’s another story). We all worked long hours, which didn’t lend itself well to lasting relationships.

What was considered as ‘banter’ there would be considered harassment in another type of organisation. I have no doubt that environment toughened me up to the point that at one stage I could out-bloke the blokes.

Behaviour ranged from a colleague theatrically throwing himself at my feet whilst rhapsodising about my legs; being given the Outlook alias ‘My Lovely’ by my manager (much to his embarrassment when my team and I discovered this in a group email); to more sinister comments such as my manager and a colleague asking if I was up for a spit roast. And no, they weren’t inviting me to a barbecue.

Not for Sale

It’s not just been colleagues; clients have gone way beyond the line too. As a sales manager, taking clients out for business dinners was part of my job. Once, in Munich, a married client twice my age literally dragged me to a wooded area by the restaurant and put his hands all over me. Naturally, I was scared – he towered over me and we were out of earshot. But I was determined not to show it.

With a steely voice, I told him to back off and thankfully, he did. Usually I wouldn’t have been alone, but my male colleagues had other commitments that evening. As a result, we had to change the policy so that I would never be put in a vulnerable position again. It shouldn’t have to be that way.

I’ve also been called arrogant in public by a new business contact at a conference. Apparently, I’d rejected his advances because ‘I was pretty and thought I was better than him.’ Nothing to do with the fact he was married and drunk, obviously…

These are just a few of the many examples that I can give and I know I’m not alone in experiencing such harassment when I only wanted to do my job.

Workplace Conduct

As an Equality Act specialist, I once had a bizarre scenario where I was hired by a sports club manager to deliver Equality and Diversity training –for himself. His Board has required it following a grievance relating to alleged sexual harassment of a female employee. I’ve delivered such training on numerous occasions, but this was definitely a first.

I won’t share details of the case, but needless to say, inappropriate comments were made, once with alcohol involved. My training ended up with being more along the lines of coaching. He had managed the club for many years and had been feeling ashamed, stupid and worried about his job.

At the end, he thanked me for my non-judgemental approach. Mostly, my guidance was about how others perceive things and what is and isn’t appropriate in a workplace context, including out-of-hours events.

Thankfully it’s not always like the scenarios I’ve listed above.

Harmonious Work Relationships

Research by Approved Index showed that 65% of workers have had at least one office romance. Click To Tweet

Many relationships have emerged from meetings at work and when conducted with respect and professional boundaries, such relationships can be very successful.

Cindy Gallop, formerly of global creative agency network, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, recently wrote a blog entitled ‘Want to get ahead at work? It’s all about sex.’ In it, she makes some interesting points. My own view is that whether we’re young or old, married or single, sometimes the people we meet through work turn our heads.

How we deal with those impulses, however, makes all the difference. I feel it’s about comanding respect through our own sense of self. We radiate this through our language, the way we hold ourselves and the behaviour that we will and won’t tolerate. This is just one of the reasons that I coach women into stepping into their own power.

I also have an example of a situation that could have had a completely different outcome. Recently, a friend, who is high up in a professional services firm, went to make tea. Two colleagues, including a male colleague, were already in the narrow galley kitchen. As he reached to get the milk, his arm brushed against her chest.

As big-boobed women know, breasts sometimes get in the way. Knowing it was accidental, she laughed and said “boob brush,” to his visible relief. By naming it in a lighthearted way, she diffused the situation.

As Cindy Gallop concluded in her article “When you lose that sense of shame, when you feel comfortable and confident in yourself… it transforms your outlook and approach to life, and to work.”

Anj Handa is the Founder of Inspiring Women Changemakers. She teaches women how to speak up: for themselves, for others and for social issues.