Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious issue that remains prevalent across the globe. In Australia, nearly 40 per cent of women and one in four men report experiencing sexual harassment since 2015.
And unfortunately, the reality for many women is that sexual harassment is more common in workplaces that are male-dominated.
Christine*, a consultant in an engineering company who advises on environmental issues and risks, learnt this unpleasant lesson recently when several inappropriate sexual comments from a client left her feeling ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘mortified’.
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Sexual harassment is defined as an unwelcome sexual advance, conduct, or request for sexual favours which offends, humiliates or embarrasses the victim.
Christine has worked in the industry for a year and a half and has found the people she works with to generally be respectful and pleasant. But she was recently assigned to a lengthier project with a small, all-male team that saw her with ample down time, and found herself spending more time with a particular client who had a similar schedule to her.
The first few conversations were harmless enough. “We would chat about things such as personal interests, talk about our partners, plans on the weekend, you know – all the normal stuff,” Christine told Yahoo Finance ahead of International Women’s Day, which falls on Sunday 8 March.
“He came off as cheeky and would make fleeting flirty comments every now and then which made me feel slightly uncomfortable, but I shrugged them off thinking ‘oh it's just a compliment, he’s the client, don't make it awkward’.”
But then Christine revealed things began to go “downhill”.
‘Our dirty little secret’
The client’s comments became more inappropriate: he asked about her partner, and would twist conversations into something sexual.
“He started asking about my sexual preferences and wanted to know the specifics, asking for pictures, to which I was internally mortified,” Christine said.
But the man was a client, and she needed to tread carefully.
“I didn't want to f**k up the relationship for my company. I thought, "Do I stand up and walk away?" I was on this project for another month, how would that affect my professional relationship with him?”
But his questions were relentless – and brazen. Christine said he knew the questions were inappropriate, yet he asked her to keep it between them, “like our dirty little secret”.
“I can barely remember what I said during that conversation because all I can remember is feeling uncomfortable.”
Several questions ran through her mind, and self-doubt set in. “Was it my fault we got onto this topic? Did I lead him on? What exactly does he want with me and will he act on it?”
Eventually, they finished their food and walked back to their team, but Christine was still trying to process what had just happened.
“I felt immense relief rejoining the rest of the team, just glad it was over and was already thinking of ways to avoid being alone with this guy ever again.”
‘My heart just sinks’
On her train ride home, a notification popped up on her phone. “I glance down and my heart just sinks.” It was a message from him, through Instagram. “He mentioned how sexy our conversation was and was excited to talk about it more, and encouraged me to send him a bikini photo like one I had uploaded months ago.”
Christine tried to laugh it off again and deflect with sarcasm, “haha”s and ‘stop’ emojis, but he kept messaging for the rest of the night. She went home with a tight feeling of guilt in her chest, as though she had opened a Pandora’s box of some kind. She rang her boyfriend, cried, and told him everything.
“We were both disappointed in me as I've always been the strong, outspoken, confident girl who wasn't scared to tell someone off and speak my mind.
“Why was I so different this time? Was wanting to maintain a positive relationship with this client for my company really worth the stress, disappointment and anger I was feeling?”
A few days later, Christine revealed everything to her supervisor, who was very understanding. She was told she had his full support and was happy to sever all ties with the client as her health and well-being was the priority. Christine was given a number of options: to escalate the issue internally, be removed from the project, or continue and see how it went.
“He was protective and empathetic and really had my back,” she said. “In the end I chose to escalate it internally but continued on till the project finished.” The inappropriate comments stopped.
This was Christine’s first serious instance of sexual harassment in a workplace that typically has a “great culture and attitude” to sexual harassment, discrimination and gender equality.
“I wouldn’t consider it widespread in my industry as it’s usually the actions and attitudes of a terrible few.”
‘Do not let it slide and laugh it off’
Christine encourages those who have had an inappropriate interaction with a colleague or client to speak up.
“It’s natural instinct to blame ourselves In these situations. Talking it out with others can help bring clarity and help you figure out ways to deal with or move past it.”
Don’t be scared to escalate these instances in your workplace, she added. “You're definitely not alone and often your seniors may be more supportive than you think.”
No one should be allowed to make you feel uncomfortable, regardless of who they are, Christine said.
“Speak your mind and be firm no matter the relationship. Do not let it slide and laugh it off, it's not going to get better until you take back control.”
*Real name has been changed to preserve anonymity.
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