Unless you have been in hibernation for the last 12 months you cannot have failed to notice the “#MeToo” campaign. Some dismiss this campaign as over sensitive, hysterical women. Surely, there is nothing wrong with a bit of flirtation and banter in the work place or at a corporate event? Surely such behaviour does not automatically mean that the boundaries of sexual abuse have been crossed and that a man has acted inappropriately? For you to weigh up your thoughts on such questions I will set out an incident at a recent dining club event that I attended. It is relevant to this story to understand what I was wearing at this event (though obviously women should be allowed to wear what they want, when they want) and a photo of me on the day accompanies this blog.
This was an event where leading business people, some still working and some retired, met to partake in a boat journey to be followed by a luxury meal at an exclusive restaurant. There were around 60 delegates. Despite spirits being high it is important to note that no one was drinking in particular excess, as many were driving and it was a daytime event.
I was one of the few female business people there. This is not an uncommon scenario for me. Many of the delegates were in their late ’50s to early ’60s and male. An old boys network who clearly met often and were comfortable in each other’s company. The event started well with great camaraderie between the delegates, all enjoying a good time and a jolly away from the office or the hum-drum of home life.
After a delightful boat journey we arrived at the restaurant and enjoyed a five star three course meal with wines to match. Following the meal the Chairman of the event invited the chef and his assistants into the dining room so that we could feedback to them opinions on the wine, food and ambience. The Chairman opened this discussion by running through the three different starters on the menu and asked the delegates to give feedback on each and what they had enjoyed. As I was one of the few people that had the Parma Ham starter, the Deputy Chairman leaned across the table and asked me whether I had enjoyed it. I confirmed that I had, indeed, enjoyed it very much. The Deputy Chairman relayed my comment back to the Chairman stating:
“Yes, she enjoyed it very much”.
In response to this feedback the Chairman bizarrely and loudly stated, to the entire dining room;
“I did not ask you whether you enjoyed looking at her breasts, I was asking about the food! We’ve all been having a good look at her breasts”
Now, it is easy to dismiss this as a clumsy comment dished out by an old boy, however this would diminish the humiliation I felt upon the delivery of this comment. All eyes were on me following this comment and it was attention I neither wanted nor had invited. I was not treated as a professional business woman but was instead diminished to a mere sexual object. It is not good enough to suggest that this comment was clearly aimed at the Deputy Chairman or to state that such comments are the domain of older men. This would only serve to undermine all those older men who would never dream of making such comments. Further, this is not a problem that will simply evaporate in 20 years when the old boys have died out but is an attitude that a handful of men will always possess and which poses a daily challenge to professional business women who want and need to be taken seriously. When such incidents occur we need to tackle them head on. Whilst the Deputy Chairman immediately apologised to me the Chairman did not and was clearly oblivious that his comment was inappropriate.
It makes me sad that in these modern times we still require movements like the “Me Too” campaign to raise awareness about inappropriate behaviour and exploitation of women. It should be obvious what boundaries should not be crossed. I want to be treated equally and taken seriously by my contemporaries, not leered at. I should be able to dress femininely without having to tolerate unwanted comments. I accept and celebrate the fact that there are clear differences between the genders, to deny this is foolish and we have much to gain from embracing one another’s difference.
I absolutely accept that the majority of men treat women extremely well and are horrified by the abuse that some women suffer. However, men that do not condone this behaviour must be willing to address it rather than passively sitting back and finger wagging. They must tackle it to ensure that it cannot be repeated as if a women on her own raises a grievance she is often dismissed as a trouble maker. This is where we all, women included, often fall foul. We dismiss such incidents as harmless, or trivial, or worse, acceptable and this simply perpetuates the problem. It is time we stood firm, together, and made clear that such incidents are unacceptable and if they occur, there will be consequences.
Samantha Jago – rhw Solicitors LLP