Kathy Sheridan: #MeToo movement is far from over
A recent case in Ireland shows how workplace sexual harassment is alive and well
‘Not every woman is in a position to threaten the person who sexually harasses them.’ Photograph: iStock
#MeToo has quietened down. A certain kind of male has relaxed and dropped the silly pretence of being terrified to smile at a colleague for fear of a public scourging. In fact, there are worrying signs that wholesale amnesia is setting in. The Sydney Morning Herald characterises ball-tampering as “cricket’s #MeToo moment: a rare opportunity for complete purge”. Oh look – there’s that guy putting sugar in his pocket after tea, possibly to scuff the ball with it, exactly like sexual assault and harassment in the workplace.
But just as the dust settles, a case pops up to remind us what #MeToo is all about. No film stars or celebrities are involved, no super confident English journalist wondering why every woman can’t just threaten to punch a British cabinet minister who feels up her knee. Julia Hartley-Brewer now regards the 15-year-old knee incident as “mildly amusing”, doubtless probably helped by the fact that she was an Oxford-educated, media high-flyer in her mid-30s at the time. Last year, several older female journalists lined up to confirm that there’s nothing a feisty threat won’t fix if delivered in the right tone.
This week we learned that an Irish car parts company has been ordered to pay €46,000 to a receptionist who was sacked after refusing to have sex with her boss. So why didn’t she just threaten to punch him instead?
She was young, earning about €23,000 a year, working in a heavily male-dominated environment. She had been poached from a nearby petrol station by the managing director. The interview with him and Mr A, the owner, included no questions about her qualifications or experience.
Two months later Mr A made his move at the office Christmas party at a Kilkenny hotel. He invited her to the bar for a shot, where he told her what a good job she was doing and how gorgeous she was and, pointing to all the men there, suggested she could have any of them.
To anyone with a single functioning brain cell, the layers of presumption here are staggering. His presumption that she, a junior and newcomer, would welcome a discussion on her sexual attractiveness and availability by the man legally charged with her safety and welfare in the workplace. His presumption that she would be thrilled to “have” any of the men simply because she was a woman at a workplace function. His presumption that all his male employees, regardless of their own relationships and responsibilities, were just gagging for the come-on for casual sex.
Her response that she wasn’t interested in any of them failed to halt his advances. He asked if she wanted to have sex with him and made a vulgar and inappropriate comment to her before giving her directions to his bedroom and walking off towards it.
Back at work, despite increasing discomfort, she carried on doing her job, keen to learn as much as she could.
Is a fine alone sufficient to force meaningful change in a culture laid down from the top?
Part of the job was to answer questions on the company’s live web chat and, as she studied archived transcripts of question and answer sessions, she came across this exchange: “I need a blow job.” To which the managing director replied: It could not be provided because the woman was not in that day. This was open to viewing by most of the staff. What larks.
She asked both the MD and Mr A separately about the “joke”. Each said the other wrote it.
When she appeared without make-up one day, Mr A asked if she had lost it.
Risking her job
Since the problems were coming from the owner of the company, she felt unable to complain without risking her job. But about six months in, the decision was taken out of her hands. She asked the managing director for a raise. He sacked her instead, saying it was because the owner couldn’t talk to her any more.
At a hearing in the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), the owner denied the allegations about the Christmas party. Any staff member could have made the comments on the live web chat, he said. The managing director insisted she was sacked as she wasn’t cut out for the job. Quite the pair of Chuckle Brothers.
They were the company’s top men. Would an actual punch in the face have altered Mr A’s behaviour or encouraged him to explore the concept of abuse of power? Would a punch have transformed the managing director into a respectful, decent man determined to protect and encourage all his staff to be the best that they could be? Unlikely.
The young woman made her voice heard at the WRC instead, represented by the Clondalkin and Lucan Citizens Information Centre, and got the maximum award allowed. For her, two years’ salary added up to €46,000; for a profitable company, not a lot.
Meanwhile, Mr A and his managing director have retained their precious anonymity. There is no red flag against their name to warn future job applicants. They sound incapable of shame. It raises the question whether a fine alone is sufficient to force meaningful change in a culture laid down from the top. It also reminds us once again, that women are not imagining things.