A physical touch. A boys club culture. A dick pic supposedly sent as a joke.
Sexism comes in many insidious guises but for many who call it out the end result is being labelled hysterical, unprofessional or overly emotional.
Four women, at different levels in their careers, share their real life experiences of sexism in the workplace, and it makes for grim reading.
Jillian* is an experienced and highly skilled electronic engineer who has been working in the field for 20 years. She says she often finds herself as “the only woman in the room” and that the men assume she is there to make them tea or as a P.A. ” I’m still not used to the sexism. It can be as simple as not acknowledging you or talking to you in a meeting.”
“I’ve sat in meeting rooms where ultra sexists jokes are being shared and they don’t even realise I am there to understand that its rude or else they don’t care… Just last week I was in the US with work and was at a work dinner. I started to speak to a guy across from me … he says “oh I was just saying to the waiter, there won’t be any chicks here, and then you walk in”. I just had a stony face. I feel in this constant state of wanting to tear someone apart but then thinking, its work, I need to be professional, rise above it and all the rest.”
Jillian did not raise any of the issues with the company as she felt she wouldn’t be taken seriously, “It would probably just come across as me giving out”
Jillian says she has to make herself “less female” to try and fit in. She says she tries not to talk about her son at work as she says then you get put “into the “Mammy” bucket rather than the Manger bucket.
“I’ve been asked who minds your son… and the shock when I say his father… I hate that I have to make myself less female in order to blend in but in reality I can’t blend and feel I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t.”
When Jillian was a junior engineer she was working late on a project one night with a senior manager, “He propositioned me late one evening.. he was married to a woman who worked in a different department in the company.”
Jillian says that she did not raise any of the issues with the company as she felt she wouldn’t be taken seriously, “It would probably just come across as me giving out and I should just get on with it.”
Sarah* worked in a well known global financial services and accountancy firm as a receptionist. Sarah said that her time working there was steeped in sexism and sexual harassment. “It was a terrible, oppressive environment. I was not revenue generating and I felt like I was a slave to the people that were, who were mostly male.”
The firm decided to change the uniform for receptionists to a pink shirt, telling the receptionists that it was because pink was “more feminine”. Some of the men in the firm made inappropriate comments to Sarah. “I was openly ogled and was told the uniform that they provided made me look very ‘booby’.”
“I was asked by a manager, while pregnant on my first baby, if he could be the father of my second. When I said it to my boss I was told to just ignore him.”
The culture in the firm was very sexist, Sarah says, and she felt dehumanised by the managers, who called her “girl” instead of using her name. “I was mostly invisible there, my contribution wasn’t rated at all.” Sarah says she was expected to undertake tasks that were not in her job description, like taking care of client’s children. “It used to be a running joke that this place would never hire a male receptionist.”
When expressing opinions she was asked was she on her period
When expressing opinions she was asked was she on her period and “laughed at when I expressed my annoyance.”
Sarah was chased and groped by a delivery man while other staff members looked on. “The other staff stood laughing as he chased me. I saw him most days at work. I was told by my colleagues I should feel flattered.”
Sarah complained to HR about the sexism and sexual harassment she was experiencing. “I was told the essence of my job was emotional labour and I was naive to not expect this type of behaviour. The managing partner also said the same to me.”
Working in such a toxic environment caused Sarah to become ill and she left the firm.
Ailis says when she complained she was told it was “just banter” and that she was “made to feel stupid or painted as being a moan”.
While working in a bar Ailis experienced groping and harassment. The manager in the bar would touch her inappropriately and tell her she was, “gagging for it”. “He was in his late 30s and I was 19. I was constantly telling him not to touch me and to stop.”
“I told him outright it was sexual harassment and he’d laugh and say, “who would believe you?”
Ailis says she experienced a lot of sexual harassment, and also assault while working in the bar, from both her manager and customers. She says the manager also told customers that she was “gagging for it” which made her very angry and upset. “I did speak to other staff about it but they said the owner was awful to them too. I was basically told there was no point reporting it as nothing would happen.”
The constant sexual innuendo and harassment took it’s toll on Ailis’s health.
Ailis left that job as it was so distressing and was hired by an acquaintance to run events for university students. She says she was working full time but only getting €100 a week and that she was constantly told her wages would improve soon. Her boss would regularly say sexist and offensive things about her to other people. “He would introduce me as “the whore” because he thought it was funny that I swore so much but was quite eh, frigid. So it was “ironic”.”
“He once introduced me to a packed lecture hall of about 2,000 students as “the whore”.”
When Ailis struck lucrative deals with sponsors her boss belittled her achievements by telling her that it was only, “because they wanted to fuck me.”
“I was made to feel like I was over reacting or too sensitive sometimes when I did complain.”
The constant sexual innuendo and harassment took it’s toll on Ailis’s health. “I started having panic attacks and was diagnosed with panic disorder. I dropped to just under 6 stone from the stress of it.”
Ailis says when she complained she was told it was “just banter” and that she was ” made to feel stupid or painted as being a moan”.
“I was made to feel like I was over reacting or too sensitive sometimes when I did complain.”
She says would have loved to have reported her boss but that she, “doubted anything would come of it” and was worried about the stress it would bring, so she left the job instead. Ailis was unsure of what avenues were open to her to report such incidences and she says she would like to see legislation and government policies that provide “an independent panel to report to, a clear avenue for reporting and knowing action will be taken. I think less men would do it if they thought they’d cop trouble for it.”
Turns out all the men had all seen my “hysterical” email and had all been joking about it – “don’t say anything to that one, she’ll have you up for sexism”
Maria* was a site manager in a multinational engineering company .
“All my managers were men, all my staff were men, the other site managers were men.” To redress the male-dominated staff situation, Maria began an active recruitment process to hire more women into her team.
“One of the other site managers sent a “joke” email which basically amounted to him sending me a picture of male genitals/a dick pic in the name of humour.” Maria says she found it, “hugely triggering and totally inappropriate.”
Maria decided not to report to HR but to reply with a simple email asking him to keep communication purely business related and telling him that the picture, “wasn’t appropriate to send.”
“Once I emailed him, I considered it a closed case. The atmosphere went weird though straight away with my managers — turns out all the men (those at the same level, and my managers) had all seen my “hysterical” email, had all been joking about it – “don’t say anything to that one, she’ll have you up for sexism, har har har”.
I was told it was my own doing, because whether I like it or not, men talk/joke/are sexist, and I should either lighten up or reconsider my career path.
“Suddenly, I started finding out about intersite meetings after they happened. Having decisions made by the men dictated to me, when I had always been the decision maker for my site. Lots and lots of subtle undermining.”
Maria spoke to her manager about the other managers excluding her. “I was told it was because I had created an environment of mistrust, it was my own doing, because whether I like it or not, men talk/joke/are sexist, and I should either lighten up or reconsider my career path.”
“If anything, the boys club it created helped the dick pic sending guy to advance and I was basically shut down/out.”
The stress of the situation affected Maria’s private life. She developed anxiety and was having trouble sleeping.
“It made it so that a job I loved, I excelled at it, I had begun dreading going in there… Then I got pregnant and the sexism obviously got much worse — but I was all so subtle and very, very hard to prove!”
In the end they made him write a “sorry if you felt” email… A week later he got promoted.
Maria had kept good records of all the instances and decided to report to HR. She says the company “didn’t want to handle it.” Maria was told that she should get on with her work and “stop ‘squabbling’” however she pursued with her complaint.
“In the end they made him write a “sorry if you felt” email… A week later he got promoted.”
Maria made the decision not to return to work after her maternity leave ended and left the industry entirely. She still feels very angry about how she was treated.
“Years of having to work 10 times harder to be seen as equal wore me down. And I was bloody good at my job. I saved them millions in innovation, creative cost savings, all of which this company have rolled out across the board — but you can be sure as hell it was a man who took the credit!”
Maria says the company hasn’t hired any women since she left six years ago. She says she finds it astounding that during her time there she was able to recruit eight exceptionally qualified and talented women but seemingly the day she left, “the pool of qualified female applicants vanished.”
Maria says we need more women in male dominated industries but that, “if women have an uphill battle to get employed and treated like equals, what’s the point unless the culture changes?”
“I think that’s what has depressed me most about that experience. I tried to drag it out into the light and fight it, and in the end, it made zero difference because the status quo was so ingrained.”
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article please contact the Rape Crisis Centre on 1800 77 8888 (Ireland) or 0808 802 9999 (UK)
For information on workplace related complaints, and workplace equality legislation see:
*Names changed to protect anonymity.
About the Author
Taryn de Vere is a writer, a colourful fashion activist and a mother of 5.