An admin worker in a male-dominated industry spoke to Women’s Fightback about her experiences of challenging workplace sexism. The following text is adapted from an interview.
I’m an administrator working in an office sited in a bin depot that provides refuse, recycling, and street cleaning services for a local authority.
Our workplace is very male-dominated, with only a small number of women working here. Sexism is rife, ranging from leering over pornography in communal areas, and offhand “jokes” and comments (i.e. mother-in-law or wife jokes, or instructions to “get the teas in darlin’” etc.) to very crude personal insults and sexual harassment.
Dealing with sexist comments
If and how I respond to sexist comments entirely depends on the context and the severity of the comment/incident. There is a very banter-based culture here, and one of the reasons why I perhaps “get away” with not having a lot of comments directed at me personally is because I have built up a persona of being “one of the lads” over the years I’ve worked here (as a defensive mechanism) so I can simply tell them to fuck off, or give them a playful slap, or make a sarcastic quip back or something like that, always in a jokey way.
A lot of the men here call me “gobby” because I will give as good as I get a lot of the time. I appreciate that a) many women may not feel able to do this (or feel that they should) and b) many women may not agree with this approach, but I feel like this has been the safest and easiest way for me to play it.
I believe that if I hadn’t have done this, then when I did actually make a serious point, and call them on something that was “worse”, they would just roll their eyes if I had a reputation for being the kind of person who takes things too seriously, or “goes on” about things.
Sometimes they will make “mildly” sexist comments, and demand I make them tea and stuff like that, or make suggestive comments, and I might let it slide, or just tut. Because they can “get away” with this sort of thing and know that I can “have a joke”, they do actually take me seriously when I make a serious point or challenge them on something “bad”.
Sexism towards other women in my workplace
I know all the operational staff that work here, and they all know me, whereas some women who work in the office couldn’t even name two of them. This means that sometimes I have been asked by other women to speak on their behalf.
For example, a while ago one of the female office staff complained to me that every time she walked in the canteen they wolf-whistled at her, which upset her and made her feel isolated, threatened and uncomfortable. She didn’t feel able to challenge them on this, so asked me for advice. At her request, I spoke to the guys who were doing it (seriously, not in the usual “jokey” manner) and explained that it wasn’t acceptable to do this to anyone, and why, and how it made women feel, and asked them to stop, which they have done.
Again, I know that some other women may not agree with this, but I feel that by letting some of the other “minor” things slide, and be able to “have a joke’ with them on other things, this allowed me to be taken seriously in this instance, and to let them know they had gone too far. I recognise that even this is not something that women should have to do. However, sometimes you have to make the best of the situation as it exists, and for me, and for the other woman involved in this instance, it certainly did feel like a victory.
Gender differences in challenging sexism at work
The response of male workmates to sexist comments varies. We work in a large workplace (with nearly 350 staff) so it’s hard to generalise. Sometimes men will call other men out for how I’m spoken to, but this is more of a case of “you can’t speak to her like that” rather than “you shouldn’t speak to any woman like that”, because of personal relationships, and who I am, rather than the overall principle.
It’s not always clear why men make sexist comments at work. At a surface level, possibly because they just think it’s a laugh, and so are hoping to get some from others present. This will make them feel good about themselves and boost their self-esteem.
It could also go deeper, in that they genuinely have no respect for women, or because they have grown up in or are used to being in an environment where women are degraded.
Many men in my workplace are also illiterate, and it can be a threat to their ego having women in their workplace who do not have these difficulties, and so can do things that they cannot do themselves. As it’s a manual job, I think a lot of them take pride in the physical exertion required, which they perhaps feel that women cannot match.
I have never witnessed any other women in my workplace joining in with sexist “banter”, but I suppose it could be argued that sometimes by purposefully ignoring certain things when in a group situation I am “joining in” with it.
Violence and threats against women workers
In terms of the worst cases I have seen, we have had a few workers actually imprisoned (the longest for eight years) for violent and/or sexual assaults on women. A while ago I supported a fellow female worker who made a complaint against a worker she overheard making abhorrent comments about a rape case in the news.
Personally, I have experienced sexual harassment ranging from comments about my body and my sex life, to being threateningly brushed up against, and actually groped.
Other forms of discrimination at work
Homophobia and racism are also problems in my workplace. Quite a few people have been bullied so badly over both of these issues that they have left. “Casual” homophobia and racism are very much the norm.
Sexism in our unions, our movement and society
My union branch has never discussed sexism or sexual harassment. Our union nationally has a domestic violence policy, but having worked here and been a union member for about seven years now, I can certainly say they has never been a concerted campaign or focus on any “equality issues”. On the other hand, “our union” is us, it’s our members in our workplace. We can’t make demands of an arbitrary entity.
Sexism in society as a whole is getting worse. We all know about the effects of austerity on women directly — loss of public sector jobs, stopping of funding advice and rape centres etc.
More generally, I suppose, a state implementing austerity has to dissuade women from rejecting traditional roles (housework, childcare, care of the elderly etc.) as it will need to rely on this unpaid labour.
While I wholeheartedly believe in challenging sexism, something that has been very prominent on “the left” recently, is a lot of talk about boycotting people or groups who have bad politics about women and women’s oppression.
Whilst I respect a woman’s right to “work with” who she chooses when it comes to campaigns and organisations, when it comes to actual work, and who you have to work with, you don’t have that choice available to you.
Seeing as 99% of the men I work with in my job have worse gender politics than, say, the Socialist Workers Party, I can’t simply decide that I am going to refuse to work with them because a. that’s my job and I have to and b. we are all members of the same union, and if we need to do any organising in the workplace (which we do, often) that would not be possible if I simply refused to.
Changing attitudes through struggle
When I first started working here, we had a strike, and, despite not being personally affected and not balloted for the action, I refused to cross their picket line and stood on the gate with them. This act got me a lot of (admittedly begrudging) respect from the (male) workforce, and a lot of them started talking to me, when they hadn’t before, and getting to know me as a person rather than “just a woman”, and as an ally and a help in their dispute.
I remember a strike a couple of years after that, and we had won it, and were having a workplace meeting afterwards, with hundreds of staff there, and were congratulating each other, and one man spoke and said I deserved a thank you for “making the teas”. He wasn’t even making a joke, he actually thought that saying that to me was being nice.
Rather than me having to tut, or say something back to him, a few others (men) instantly jumped in to my defence, outraged at the assumption that that was all I had done, and explained to him the extent of my involvement in the dispute (saying “come off it mate, she’s done loads more than that, she’s done x or y” etc.). To have that recognition and respect from them meant a lot to me.
I imagine there might be some women who might be disgusted at that and think that should just be the norm, not something to celebrate or be pleased. Or that their respect, or recognition from them, isn’t something I should desire in the first place.
However, having spent years experiencing and struggling against outrageous disrespect and blatant sexism in my workplace, contextually I was over the moon, and it felt like a genuine victory and a step forward.
It might sound like a cliché I suppose, but in struggle a lot of people saw me as their equal, and their comrade, and that is how I’ve tried to play it, and what I’ve tried to build on, by showing that we may be different in gender, but that we’re united as a class.