Monday October 22, 2012
Predators at work
BUT THEN AGAIN By MARY SCHNEIDER
Lustful looks, unwelcome touches, sexual innuendos... women are encouraged to speak out against inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.
WHEN I was in my mid-twenties, I worked in an office that was almost entirely staffed by women.However, the majority of the managers were male.
There were six other girls in my department, five of whom were younger than me. All of us girls got on well together, probably because we were united by a common dislike for our manager.
Jonathan (not his real name) was one of those men who allowed his gaze to linger on your breasts while he was talking to you about monthly reports.
Beads of perspiration would form on the top of his shiny, bald head as he stared at anyone stretching to retrieve something from a high shelf, or bending down to open a drawer.
Sometimes, I would look up from my desk and catch him staring at one of us in an overtly lustful manner.
Whenever he wanted to explain something to me (and he treated the other girls exactly the same), he would stand next to my desk and put his hand on my shoulder. I could feel his podgy fingers burning through the fabric of my blouse, convincing me that he’d left his fingerprints on the skin beneath – something akin to a dog marking its territory.
As time passed, Jonathan became bolder and bolder. One day, shortly after our department became equipped with shiny new computers, one of my colleagues had a problem “booting up” her machine and asked if he could help.
“Let me see what the problem is,” he said, standing directly behind her chair.
Then he leaned over her shoulder while pressing his body flat against her upper back.
I was horrified as I watched him pin the girl between himself and her desk.
I willed her to say something, but she just stared straight ahead at her blank computer screen.
During our coffee break, I questioned her about her silence. “Why did you let him do that?” I said. “Why didn’t you say something?”
“I don’t want to cause trouble,” she said. “Besides, I need this job.”
“But he doesn’t have the right to do that,” I reasoned. “No one does.”
A few days later, he did exactly the same thing to another girl. She didn’t complain either.
Unbeknown to me, Jonathan had marked me as his next victim.
The following morning, as I was working at my computer, he snuck up behind me.
“Have you finished the XYZ report?” he said, pressing himself against my back. “I need it urgently.”
I could feel his hot, sour breath on my cheek. My heart began hammering in my chest.
I quickly pushed my chair back, inadvertently running over his foot, and spun around to face him. He muttered something under his breath.
“Don’t do that to me ever again,” I said in a loud voice. “In fact, don’t do it to anyone ever again.”
“What are you talking about?” he said, shrugging his shoulders and turning the palms of his hands upwards.
As he glared at me, I could feel the sweat prickling my scalp and my legs beginning to shake.
Without saying another word, I walked out of the office and made my way to the toilet at the end of the corridor.
I don’t know how long I sat in there, thinking about what I should do next.
I knew I’d embarrassed Jonathan, not just in front of his entire staff, but also in front of the departments on either side of us in the large open-plan office. Maybe he would fire me, cook up some story about me not being a team player. Maybe none of the other girls would come to my defence.
There was only one way to find out.
I walked back to my desk, not daring to make eye contact with anyone, sat down, and continued to work as if nothing had happened.
But something had happened.
Over the next few weeks, Jonathan was cold and abrupt towards me, while making a show of being overtly cheerful and friendly with the rest of the team. But he did distance himself physically from everyone.
A month later, I secured a position in another department, on another floor. I never saw Jonathan again, but I would sometimes bump into some of the girls in the staff canteen. Jonathan was still maintaining his “hands off” policy.
It’s been many years since I worked in an office, but I’m sure there are still predators like Jonathan skulking behind positions of authority. I just hope that every young woman now knows that it’s OK to say “stop”, to walk away, or even call for help when someone is behaving inappropriately.