A Warning About The Welcome Committee
It was a bit awkward when I first broached the whole ‘swimsuit area’ sexual safety conversation with my then 4-year-old, on her way to playschool. I felt terrible about introducing her to distrust and potential danger. I suffered all the attendant parental angst and guilt you feel when you spring your sprogs into the cruel world.
That conversation got easier over time, but now she’s 15 and I have another set of warnings to give her.
We had many names for them. The Welcome Committee. Tourist Office. Help Desk. The men hanging on the edges of the office circles, making a big effort to “make you feel welcome” as you tried to be as inconspicuous as possible in your first job – an intern, trainee, gopher, junior, the nomenclature very clearly defining where on the food chain you were.
They were so nice these guys – older, helpful, wise in the ways of this new environment where you hoped to succeed – on that bad day in the first month. Maybe you got your first yelling, or you were overwhelmed with the sheer load of drudgery, or you were young and had forgotten to eat. You may have been from another city, living in depressing accommodation, exhausted with the commute.
You may have broken down, and they swooped in kindly, “Let’s go out for a drink yaar. You need a break,” or “Why don’t you come over after work? Your boss is an asshole, but I can’t tell you here what he’s really like.”
Nice guys. Really.
Except, if you said no, their reactions were confusing – aggressive, sometimes, a sudden withdrawal of all that friendly camaraderie. You suddenly found yourself burdened with even more pointless work or having to stay late. And then the next batch of interns would come and the Welcome Committee would repeat the process.
“He is so helpful!” a new girl would say enthusiastically, still so low on the food chain. You wouldn’t say a thing but you’d keep an eye out for her.
Some of us had already experienced a little of this in college. A classmate, called up to a senior lecturer’s room to discuss something curricular, had to deal with a random interjection, a propos of nothing, a throwaway sentence about a rash on his penis. At 17, we laughed about it for days. Senile old fellow, we said, probably has early signs of Tourette’s. Now, with a 15-year-old daughter months away from college, I’d make a less generous snap psychological diagnosis. I certainly don’t find it as funny.
If you said no, their reactions were confusing – aggressive, sometimes, a sudden withdrawal of all that friendly camaraderie.
According to this alarming research by UK’s Trades Union Congress and the Everyday Sexism Project , sexual harassment at work continues to occur. The numbers also indicated that it happens more frequently and more seriously to younger women and women in ‘temporary’ jobs – those perhaps nervous (understandably so, given the precedent) of losing favour or even their jobs if they don’t grin and bear it as “a bit of friendly banter.”
The situation has another unsavoury complexity that I will find hard to charitably explain to my daughter. As in life, also in the office, I encountered the occasional young woman complicit in this subtle power play. Perhaps unconsciously, or out of a counter-intuitive attempt at self-preservation, they reacted positively to it; they’d go get a beer with the Welcome Committee or go out shopping with the much older boss.
The sad part is, their stories didn’t end up much different from those who resisted the overtures. They would lose favour eventually, and the inevitable tearful episodes six months down the line would be much more difficult to commiserate with.
I got away unscathed. I initially put it down to my boisterous personality, workman’s wardrobe, the fact that I had a comfortable home, enough to eat and a steady boyfriend. But I look back now and realize it was as much because I was surrounded by a network of women colleagues looking out for me and each other. One editor in particular was like a mother bear for her staff of young women.
There were also many, many male colleagues just as wonderful, just as likely to say, “Let’s go out for a beer,” with no strings attached. But you sometimes overheard them with the others, overheard their locker room talk, and you never let your guard down entirely.
It’s still a man’s world that my daughter is stepping into, but I am comforted by the two women I know, whose work now includes identifying, intercepting, confronting, reporting and counseling any incidents of sexual harassment at work. They don’t have to rely on a hunch or watch out for tears. Their companies have empowered them with guidelines and procedures.
One, in her early forties and very high up on the corporate food chain, reminds me we still have so far to go. At an office trip to a local bar, one gentleman casually grabbed both her forearms in casual conversation and began stroking them. When she physically and verbally recoiled, the man acted perplexed, hurt even that his friendly gesture had been so misconstrued.
She found herself apologizing for a half-second and then looked at the new young team with them. She stopped mid-sentence and told him categorically to never touch her. Later that evening, she reiterated the company’s zero tolerance of sexual harassment at work to the new employees.
The corporate world is waking up to the fact that hiring more women is the best thing a company can do. And while we wait for the evolution to be more evident, I recount these incidents to my daughter, reminding her of the network of support she has at home, the network she must look for outside, to rely on and to strengthen.
The ‘swimsuit area’ conversation was so much easier.