Women at work: ‘My boss asked what my favourite position was’

Seven women, aged 30 to 78, share their experiences of sexism and harassment

Unwanted attention: Workplace harassment is not a new phenomenon and can be found across all industrial sectors in Ireland. Illustration: Getty

Unwanted attention: Workplace harassment is not a new phenomenon and can be found across all industrial sectors in Ireland. Illustration: Getty

 

A 72-year-old interview with the late Maureen O’Hara circulated on the internet in recent days, depicting the harassment she was forced to contend with as a young actor in Hollywood.

“Because I don’t let the producer and director kiss me every morning or let them paw me they have spread word around town that I am not a woman – that I am a cold piece of marble statuary,” she told the Mirror in 1945. “If that’s Hollywood’s idea of being a woman I’m ready to quit now.”

Workplace harassment is not a new phenomenon. Nor is it confined to Hollywood. In recent weeks, the deluge of harassment allegations that began with Harvey Weinstein wound its way across the globe, sweeping through Westminster and the British Tory party.

Last weekend, in this newspaper, a number of former employees of the Gate Theatre made a series of allegations of sexual harassment and bullying against its former director Michael Colgan.

Here, seven women – in different sectors, aged from their early 30s to their late 70s – talk about their experiences of gender relations, sexism and harassment growing up, in the workplace, and beyond.

What was your experience of harassment growing up? 

“In school [in the 1960s] we had a teacher who was given to the laying on of hands. He had a habit of correcting copybooks in front of the fire, and he’d have his hands under your skirt, under your knickers. Everybody knew it was happening to us. Nobody talked about it. Eventually, someone made a complaint to the guards. He was convicted and spent three years in jail.”
– Marie Clohessy (69) retired equality officer at the Department of Labour

“Growing up in London in the 1970s, my experiences were similar to most women – men exposing themselves, touching you inappropriately, suggestive or lewd remarks. But the nature of it changed after I came out at 24, and the harassment became much more threatening.”
– Prof Danielle Clarke (51) head of School of English, Drama and Film at UCD
 

Have you experienced sexism or harassment in the workplace?

“When I was 19 [in the mid 2000s], I was the only female in an organisation in the insurance industry. The men I was working with would call me their secretary in front of clients and ask me to bring them tea. I always had a good sense of humour and a thick skin.

“But at our Christmas party my then boss asked me to share a taxi home. He began behaving inappropriately and asked me what my favourite position was. I laughed it off with a reference to sport. He said I had no children and must be ‘very tight’. I was repulsed and got out of the taxi.

“He apologised the next day, but I found a new job as soon as I could. I do regret that I didn’t report it, but when the person is the head of your department, who do you turn to?”
– Valerie (30) private sector

It’s probably difficult to be a woman in any workplace where there’s such a massive gender imbalance

“In my job in the 1970s, I was dealing with pay and conditions in the workplace. It was ‘Are women doing the same work; are they being promoted?’ At the same time, I remember being asked by members of the Labour Court whether I had a boyfriend and was I not afraid that, by concentrating on a career and a job, I was reducing my chances of meeting a man?

“At that time, women being interviewed at the health board would be asked what form of family planning they were using. There were always a few men who would get physical. There was a guy who would go out at lunchtime and have a couple of drinks. If you came back from lunch, you either went up a flight or down a flight to avoid passing his door, because if you did, you’d get a mauling.”
– Marie Clohessy (69) retired equality officer at the Department of Labour

“My older, married boss has told me, in front of several people, that he really liked a dress on me because it showed off my figure, as he demonstrated my curves with his hands. The dress was knee length with sleeves to the elbow. There was no skin on show.

“Another day my boss asked me to stand up and ‘give him a twirl’. At a work event, alone in a lift with him, he asked me if I wanted to go up to his room. I laughed it off and ran.

“When I went to HR about this recently, I was shut down immediately, and told to ‘be careful’ that it was ‘slander’ unless I made a formal complaint. Many of these incidents were witnessed by colleagues. It’s not a secret. I know the woman never wins, there’s no winning in this.”
– Laura (42) private sector

“I was in an all-woman office in the 1960s, where our immediate manager was a man. He used to time people going to the loo. I stood up and said this is ridiculous. I walked out and never went back. I don’t see it as brave: it’s very easy to stand on your principles when you’re not dependent on the income.”
– Freda McGrane (78) retired from public and private sector
 

What’s your experience of gender relations in your workplace? 

“Leinster House is still a very male environment. I don’t know any other workplace where you see two people shouting at each other across the room. It’s difficult to reconcile the so-called ‘rough and tumble’ of the Dáil chamber and the informal banter that goes on out of hours, with the idea that these are people who genuinely want to have gender equality.

“When you’ve seen a man stand up in the chamber and shout a woman down, ignore what she says, or make remarks about her clothes, it can be difficult to play nicey-nice with them afterwards. The ‘Miss Piggy’ remarks [when Mick Wallace was caught on microphone making derogatory comments about Mary Mitchell O’Connor, in a conversation with Shane Ross and Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan in 2011] rattled me badly.

“It’s probably difficult to be a woman in any workplace where there’s such a massive gender imbalance. I’m still called a girl at work and I’m 36.”
– Mary (36) civil servant in Leinster House

“When I started work at UCD in 1994, the English department was heavily male-dominated. If I stood by the photocopier, somebody would ask me to do photocopying. There was an expectation that menial jobs – administrative labour, emotional labour – was what women did. I fought against that.

“These were people who were not used to having their authority questioned, but once they realised they couldn’t push me around, they respected me. UCD in the mid-1990s was a pretty homophobic place, and my sexuality was something I didn’t talk about for a long time. By the time my partner and I had our daughters in the early 2000s, it had changed.

“I would have been very open about my sexuality and my domestic situation by then, and when I announced I was leaving to have a baby, I had invariably positive responses from staff and students. But I had no break in service when our children were born, and there’s a perception they’re not my children in the same way other people’s are.

“To be unbelievably crude and binary about it, people assume I’m more like a man with regard to my children. Ironically, I’m a more hands-on mum than my partner. In a way, that perception has worked in my favour. There are 37 heads of school. I think I’m the only woman with children under 10, which is interesting.”
– Prof Danielle Clarke (51) head of School of English, Drama and Film at UCD

“[Early in my career] patients and relatives would repeatedly address female doctors as ‘nurse’ despite white coats and name badges. Sometimes, it was an absence of the respect that would be given to a male equivalent – being patronised, called ‘sweetheart’ or ‘dear’.”
– Dr Annette Neary (51) consultant physician


Have you ever experienced harassment outside the workplace? 

“I am a big sports fan and am often in a minority of females when I go to games. On one recent occasion, in the bar, a man grabbed me right between my upper thighs. I pushed his hand away. He told me to relax.

“On another occasion I was grabbed by a stranger and kissed on the lips. When I tried to pull away the man asked me what was my ‘f**king problem?’ I did report that incident to the stadium security, but nothing was done.”
– Valerie (30) private sector

“I travelled a lot for work [in the 1970s and 1980s] and you’d have to screw up all your courage to walk into a diningroom on your own. These hotels were full of sales reps. You’d be making bets with yourself as to which one would be coming with his cup of coffee and plonk himself down. All of these men had wives and kids at home. If there was a single man there, he wasn’t the one coming within an ass’s roar of you.”
– Marie Clohessy (69) retired equality officer at the Department of Labour

“Wandering hands at parties was fairly common [when I was a young, married woman]. You’d make sure you weren’t alone with those men, but you wouldn’t be too obvious about it. If you’re brought up to be fairly polite, it’s difficult to balance your rights as a person with your need to display some kind of assertiveness.”
– Freda McGrane (78) retired from public and private sector

These girls get penis photos sent to them on Tinder so personal remarks in work pale in comparison

“It’s only recently I realised how I have ordered my life around not getting harassed – where I park my car, getting taxis rather than walking, or taking public transport.”
– Dr Annette Neary (51) consultant physician

“I loathe the expression ‘not all guys’. They must stop keeping their heads down when their creepy friend does something.”
– Mary (36) civil servant in Leinster House


What changes have you observed in how men and women relate to one another at work since you started working?

“None – and that’s in more than 20 years. Men are still treated with more respect and their opinions mean more than ours. Men hate to be challenged by women. We are judged on our appearance. Always.”
– Laura (42) private sector

“I thought we’d have come further by now. In the 1970s, it seemed the world was becoming a more egalitarian place.”
– Marie Clohessy (69) retired equality officer at the Department of Labour

“It has changed since I started working at Leinster House. More independent women came in and shook things up a bit, and they raised issues that the older, male cohort would never want to raise. The culture around what is acceptable to be discussed has changed.”
– Mary (36) civil servant in Leinster House

“Harassment has always been around but I think a certain type of man is more aggressive now. Women are achieving a lot more and that makes some men generally quite afraid. The idea of having to compete with an equally qualified woman in the workplace terrifies some men, and they’re lashing out.”
– Freda McGrane (78) retired from public and private sector


How do sexism and harassment affect women of different ages?

“Younger women are more tolerant. I see young women in my office thinking it’s no big deal to be commented on. These girls get penis photos sent to them on Tinder so personal remarks in work pale in comparison.”
– Laura (42) private sector

“I am concerned about the unrealistic depictions of women through the ready availability of porn. It’s definitely harder as a younger woman to call sexism out unless it’s overt.”
– Dr Annette Neary (51) consultant physician


What are your thoughts on the public outpouring of harassment and sexism allegations?  

“This is the tip of the iceberg. I think about the women who are less empowered or less educated, and don’t have access to media outlets or social media outlets to make these points. It’s important we don’t leave all women behind.”
– Prof Danielle Clarke (51) head of School of English, Drama and Film at UCD

“I’m worried some people are trivialising it. The hand on the knee or the hand under your skirt can be as devastating in some ways as rape – it is an invasion of your private space. But it’s also important to try to recognise the dividing line between the person who is the sexual predator, and the stupid fool who wants to be one of the lads telling crude jokes.”
– Marie Clohessy (69) retired equality officer at the Department of Labour

“I admire and am grateful to the women for having the enormous courage to go public, despite the inevitable attempts at character assassination. Senior, powerful men are finally paying the price for decades of abuse, which is very cathartic. It is depressing, too, how some sections of the media still live in the 19th century; a single report of a man being abused seems to be taken more seriously than multiple reports from women.”
– Dr Annette Neary (51) consultant physician

Don’t ever accept sexism or any effort to put you down because of your gender

“I get so cross hearing people ask ‘why didn’t they report it?’ I don’t think people realise this is your livelihood, and the arts is incredibly insecure. If you get known as someone who’s difficult or a bit of a bitch, you’re not going to get another job.”
– Mary (36) civil servant in Leinster House

“In small sectors where exclusion means professional oblivion, I can see why women stay quiet. I’m staying quiet. I don’t want to be labelled a feminist trouble maker.”
– Laura (42) private sector


What advice would you give to a younger woman?

“If you are experiencing unwanted attention or flirtation, politely tell the person that you are not interested or that it makes you feel uncomfortable. If it persists or crosses a line into harassment or assault, report it. Don’t ever accept sexism or any effort to put you down because of your gender.”
– Valerie (30) private sector

“Challenge the behaviour of your male friends. Talk about it with your friends: it’s not your fault if someone is a creep. Empower yourself. Take notes. I never did. I laughed it off, as it was easier than seeing myself as a victim.”
– Laura (42) private sector  

“Understand that you have the right to your space, to your feelings. Tell somebody. Share information. Watch out for one another.”
– Marie Clohessy (69) retired equality officer at the Department of Labour

“You are there on merit, don’t let anyone demean you. Read The Confidence Code. Define success on what it means to you. Network with other women – support each other; approach senior good people in your field regardless of gender; make use of good mentorship. When you do get to a position with some power or influence, use it wisely and set an example. Don’t feel you have to ape male approaches to management when a more collaborative approach is more natural.”
– Dr Annette Neary (51) consultant physician

“To a younger woman coming in here, I’d say you can’t take what happens around you too personally because they’re being political. You’re not working for them, you’re working for the State.”
– Mary (36) civil servant in Leinster House

“It’s important to own your own authority. You have authority; you can use your authority.”
– Prof Danielle Clarke (51) head of School of English, Drama and Film at UCD

Some identities have been concealed at the request of the interviewees. 

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