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#Metoo: Call it out

By Jacqui Smith

Imagine for a moment, you are a 22-year-old woman working in an office. The workday has concluded, and you are heading out the door, a gym bag in one hand and your handbag and jacket in the other. The owner, your boss, is returning to the office with a long-standing client you have nicknamed “Mr Sleazy” because of his propensity for sexual innuendo, inappropriate comments, and outright misogyny (which you politely ignore as you serve the demanded cup of coffee).

You pause in the doorway to bid your boss and Mr Sleazy goodnight, and without warning, your boss reaches out and squeezes your breast. Hands occupied, you are unprepared and unable to fend off the appallingly intimate violation.

I will pause here to let you consider this scenario. How do you think you would react? What would you do? Even better, would such a blatant physical assault happen in today's enlightened working world?

I know how I reacted all those years ago.

“Was it just a joke or am I just being thin-skinned?”
“Was the comment about my top a compliment or was it a sleazy observation?”

Horrified, I rushed out the door, the sound of Mr Sleazy’s delighted laughter ringing in my ears. I was so shaken by the experience and felt so ashamed, mortified, violated and most notably, powerless. While my boss could make off-colour jokes sometimes (which I tolerated), he had never invaded my personal space or over-stepped physical boundaries in the past. The presence of Mr Sleazy perhaps incited the display of machismo that particular day; an attempt to impress him using me as the carrot.

My story has something of a happy ending. My boss was held accountable for his behaviour, or as he explained it, “his lapse in judgement”. I was fortunate; I had access to a government agency that could bring pressure to bear on his shameful behaviour and unsurprisingly, it turned out I was not the only complainant, although the first to be subjected to a physical assault.

I have always been a strong proponent of women, more so in the last two decades of my life as I have gained the benefit of experiential 20:20 vision. That powerless young woman feels like a completely different person to the woman I am today. Granted the benefit of hindsight however, would I have handled the situation any differently? With my hard-won wisdom, ironically my answer is - probably not. Thirty-plus years ago, I needed a job, the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world were flourishing, and the legislation was very new (Sex Discrimination Act 1984), in short, it was a very different time. This type of behaviour was almost trivialized, ..”just a slap on the arse…, just a quick cuddle, just a boob squeeze” and considered something that women should just endure. And as I outlined earlier, mine was a victory of sorts, albeit one gained by happenstance rather than decisive action.

I would like to think that we are now living in an enlightened time, where workplaces are respectful and harassment-free. However, according to a survey conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2018, one in three Australian workers had experienced sexual harassment in the preceding five years and unsurprisingly, more woman than men. That does not sound like progress to me.

While my experience of sexual harassment was explicit, there are pervasive behaviours that are not so obvious: the leering comments about the top you are wearing, the offensive jokes, or the sexually suggestive comments that are unwelcomed. This type of behaviour, by its very nature, can make you second-guess yourself.

“Was it just a joke or am I just being thin-skinned?”

“Was the comment about my top a compliment or was it a sleazy observation?”

As I have travelled further down the path of life, my rule of thumb for this kind of behaviour is, if it offends you, call the perpetrator out on it (in an appropriate way) that leaves them in no doubt that you find their comment, observation or joke offensive.

Women, who make up approximately 50% of the world’s population, have the same inalienable human rights as men: the expectation we will be treated with dignity, equality, and respect. Mine is not a cautionary tale, it is a rallying cry to all women, it is a refusal to accept anything less than our basic human rights.

And so, I leave you with this: if you find yourself on the receiving end of offensive comments, jokes or behaviour, have the courage and conviction to call it out.

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