20/20 - Can it get any clearer? The realities of workplace sexism.

Updated: Feb 19, 2019

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2017 was the year of the silence breakers. It was the year in which the world finally started to listen to the stories that had been repeatedly told for years. It was the year in which sisterhood was resurrected in the form of solidarity and unity from shared experience. It was the year in which the phrase #metoo echoed around the world. Hauntingly familiar stories of abuse, harassment and misconduct were exposed across industries – Hollywood, parliament, sport, music – the names might have been different, but the stories were the same. A mass uncovering of the abuse of power and the victimisation of women throughout the working world. Hearing about these instances in the media, in worlds that appear so far removed from your own, you can forget how close to home instances of workplace gender-based discrimination really are. It is not restricted to one man and his abuse and intimidation towards a group of women in Hollywood. It is not simply a handful of MP’s making lewd comments to junior staff. It’s more than that. It’s your daughter, in her first job in a bar being sexualised by other colleagues. It’s your sister, wanting to work her way up to manager status but being patronised and discouraged at every step of the way. It’s your friend, longing for the courage to call out her older, more senior male colleagues she’s seen acting inappropriately.

Ignorance is NOT bliss. Silence is NOT golden. Far more women than anybody would care to admit, are facing a daily battle with workplace sexism; even from their very first job. It’s something we are subject to from day ONE. I wanted to encourage the women around me to share their stories. So, in honour of International Women’s Day 2018, I present to you the silence breakers 2.0. They are a group of 20 women sharing their experiences of sexism while working in their 20’s. These women aren’t famous. They’re not on the news. But they are women that you know. Whether they’re your friends or neighbours or somebody you passed in the street. Perhaps you work with them and have no clue how your behaviour has an impact. All women have a voice worth sharing. And these 20 have found theirs.

The theme of this IWD is #PressForProgress. And everybody is asking for and championing progress in different forms. All the progress we want is, respect. We are given very little hope for a different future, with alternative attitudes when even in our very first jobs, we are subject to sexism in all forms. Being young and female does not mean that all respect can be thrown out of the window. Please treat us how you’d treat anybody else, regardless of our age and gender. We’re not even asking for respect at this point. We’re demanding it.

You can start by listening…

At three separate workplaces, four DIFFERENT men have TAKEN my phone number and begun to send me text messages. Of these men, three sent inappropriate messages (not that any of it was appropriate, they'd helped themselves to my phone number), two of which were actually quite explicit. One of them even decided not to tell me who he was which was really creepy. Mostly, my number had been taken from other colleagues; the men either having contacted me using their phone or written my number down. One of the men went a step further and took it from the staff information data.” – Anonymous, Education.

When I worked at a fast food chain in my late teens, I was told that I couldn’t wear trousers and had to wear a skirt instead. When I asked why, they said it was because I was a woman. They also repeatedly told me to wear makeup and look pretty in case customers complained - I was pretty certain my unmade face was not the biggest problem the company had. They spoke to me about my appearance so much, even letting me know how much nicer I looked without glasses. Not sure I’ll do my job as well with my vision compromised though, sorry guys! Once a customer slapped my bum while I was trying to work and literally not one member of staff took it seriously. I hated it and I hated them for how they treated me.” – Anonymous, Food Retail.

“I’d worked in a pub for a matter of weeks when I first overheard the all-male management laughing but being deadly serious about having an all-female team of bartenders because they’d “sell so much more alcohol if a pretty face was part of the experience”. From then on, every shift I expected to hear some form of derogatory talk from management about the female staff. I heard conversations about our arses and our looks. What I found even more offensive though was when they were talking, loudly, about the ‘ugly’ staff members. As if they have any right to comment on any woman’s appearance! It really bothered me.” – Anonymous, Bar Worker.

I think every women has instances in their life they look back on and know that, even if they didn’t realise it at the time, something just didn’t feel right. For me one example doesn’t really stick out, but instead a collage of events that come together to form a tapestry of everyday sexism that women have to mostly just accept as day to day life. While it comes in many forms, and affects all kinds of women differently, a common theme remains. Of making women feel less than. I’ve had men speak over me in meetings, assume my knowledge, speak only to my male colleagues. When working in the service industry I’ve been pushed, grabbed, pulled, all while just trying to take someone’s order or place food down on tables. One of my many concerns about this kind of behaviour now is that overcoming this sort of treatment, to imagine yourself as a manager or worthy of a raise, can be difficult. So the most important thing we can do is stand together and stop accepting this behaviour as normal.” - Gwyneth Sweatman, NUS Wales Women’s Officer

On my first shift as a bartender in a restaurant, I was asked by a male team member about my sexual preferences and what I enjoyed in bed before he’d even introduced himself. That was definitely introduction enough though. Another male member of staff then told me to stand around and look pretty and that I didn’t need to do anything serious. Customers have been crude about my appearance, told me to cheer up and said I look better with a smile – people literally have a fixation on girls smiling, I mean sorry but if I was treated with a bit more respect, maybe I’d smile a bit more. They’ve also offered to buy me drinks and then shouted and become aggressive when I’ve said no.” – Anonymous, Bar Worker.

Working in hospitality you have to deal with all sorts of sexist bullshit – one thing that really sticks out to me though, is the lack of respect customers can have towards senior female staff members. I genuinely dealt with an instance once where man asked me to speak to the manager, to which I replied “okay, I’ll go and get her”. If the disgust on his face wasn’t enough, the disgust in his voice definitely over compensated. “Her?” he said, “Surely you must have a man I can speak to?” Attitudes like these really don’t fill younger female workers with confidence to progress. I shouldn’t have to demand the same respect men get so freely.” – Anonymous, Hospitality.

When I first started my job as SU President, one of my colleagues in the University make a comment in an introduction; ‘oh you’re the President, well you’ve certainly shattered a few glass ceilings’. They might not have intended for it to be a complaint, however I found it offensive. Especially as it came from a woman. Later in the year my CEO had a word with me about my tone in staff emails. He stated how some staff members thought I came across as ‘aggressive’ and ‘rude’ because I used capital letters or bold to highlight certain words. I wonder if he would have had the same conversation with me if I was man or more specifically, a white man. - Chisomo Phiri, Swansea SU President

In my experience of working within hospitality it became apparent that women are treated completely differently to men. I have witnessed this bizarre attitude from customers, managers and colleagues. My personal experience involved being treated with disrespect by men who were older than me and had more authority in the company. They’ve used provocative phrases like “oh, while you’re down there” as I’ve bent down to pick up a glass and made comments about how my bum looked in my trousers. To those that say this is all ‘banter’ or a laugh within the team to lift morale, it’s really not. Please don’t try to entertain the team and customers at my expense, it makes me feel uncomfortable beyond belief. No young woman needs this type of grief when they come to work.” – Anonymous, Hospitality.

“I work on a bar and once I was serving a customer and they actually said “girls can’t shake cocktails properly, is there not a man to do that for you?” It was quite literally the most ridiculously laughable thing I’ve ever heard. It’s a real shame you have to be polite and laugh and joke with customers, because I had the perfect little two word phrase to bite back at him but couldn’t. Really didn’t help the situation that my male colleagues were laughing along.” – Anonymous, Bar Worker.

Being a female in a male dominated business is rewarding in a way but I always feel like I’m seen as inferior. I’m constantly being checked up on, males check that I’M keeping up although I’m equally as intelligent and have earned my place there and I can’t help but believe it’s because I’m younger and female. They do it in a way that almost seems caring because it’s not that they want to be condescending it’s just that it’s so ingrained in our culture that females are inferior in certain environments/situations so males constantly feel the need to make sure that females are keeping up with them. As a female you constantly feel like you have to prove yourself to reassure males that you can meet their standards. My manager always makes jokes about females being overly emotional and getting overly stressed and it’s meant to be light-hearted and I don’t let it bother me but I can’t help but notice that he never speaks to the lads the same way. It makes me feel as though he feels that females can’t handle the pressures of the job the way the males can. The term ‘boys will be boys’ encourages the attitude that someone else choosing to violate a woman is their own fault and teaches them that they are inferior to men. Additionally, it reinforces a damaging, narrow definition of masculinity that stimulates men to be dominant and aggressive: researchers have linked this ideology to reports of sexual aggression and likelihood to rape.” – Anonymous, Science.

In the summer it gets so hot in the restaurant I work in and last year we were all allowed to wear skirts and shorts to work, usually its trousers. I wore a skirt but put tights on because I didn’t feel like bending over and my bum being on full display. A much older, male colleague who was legitimately old enough to be my dad, said to me – in front of a group of other staff members – “oh are you going to actually get your legs out soon? I think we all deserve a treat in this heat”. It made me cringe so much and it didn’t help the situation that everyone that overheard laughed. I had no choice but to laugh along through my disgust. What a pervert.” – Anonymous, Food Service.

At 21, I’ve recently been promoted to a position in the company higher than the majority of other staff. I get comments all the time about the fact that I’m a young woman and far too emotional at times for my job. I’m told I’m still a baby and don’t know how to hold my own. The other day a man came and asked me to point me in the direction of the manager and when I said oh, that would be me, and he genuinely didn’t believe I was in charge or an ‘actual’ manager. For some reason everybody sees me as a young girl and not someone who’s more senior than most of the team. I really have my doubts as to whether this will ever change.” – Anonymous, Business Management.

I’ve been a waitress for over a year now and it’s my first time doing so. I’ve heard stories online and from friends about the sexism and sexual harassment they have faced in this occupation so I wasn’t naive to it. It was my first shift on the job when I first experienced it for myself (shock). I was in uniform; black shirt with a smart fitted trousers. As soon as I walked into the kitchen and greeted the chefs, I heard a wolf whistle from behind me - one of the assistant chefs. For months he would blatantly stare inappropriately whilst I was working and ask inappropriate questions. After I reported him (because having a go at him myself wasn’t enough) he began to back off but even so, apparently saying no isn’t enough.” – Anonymous, Food Service.

It’s not difficult to see that I am someone with a larger chest but in the workplace, I deem it incredibly inappropriate to comment on the size of my chest and repeatedly use the same joke of “your buttons are going to pop off soon love”. This sort of talk gives me such anxiety and makes me feel like I didn’t get the job because of my skills but instead for what they consider as a ‘great rack’. I’ve also had customers repeatedly ask me on dates and comment on my looks while I’m working. Keeping a professional manner while essentially being harassed is so difficult and has even made me consider quitting my job. I’ve done things like ask other colleagues to serve them or had them kicked out if they kept coming back. It’s so sad people think this is normal behaviour and that I won’t be affected by it. Even looking for new jobs now, I have a huge anxiety about this sort of stuff happening again.” – Anonymous, Hospitality.

I worked in a team of gardeners and have experienced very specific sexism. In the location, women worked in the walled gardens and men worked in the arboretum. Women were only allowed to weed or plant plants while men were allowed to use machinery to cut hedges and prune trees. In the arboretum where the men worked, women were only allowed to do the weeding and tidy up the men’s mess where they’d done the machinery jobs mentioned before. Some women actually wanted to use the machinery and do the heavier work and had been fully trained from previous jobs. Just like some men who wanted to do more horticultural tasks like planting. No one was doing their jobs by choice, our gender decided that.” – Anonymous, Horticultural Worker.

“I was stood at the bar when my manager unzipped my skirt. I asked him “why would you do that” and he replied “there’s nothing wrong with it” all the while laughing. It made me feel violated and I felt I had to act if it was ok and a joke. I really didn’t find it funny in the slightest. From anyone this would be inappropriate but there’s something really seedy about it coming from a manager, who I wouldn’t feeling comfortable speaking back to.” – Anonymous, Bar Worker.

On my very first shift as a waitress at a new restaurant, I was taking food out to a table when the head chef slapped my bum - I’ve never felt so uncomfortable in my life. I didn’t do anything at the time because everyone else in the kitchen found it so funny. Looking back, it was assault and I should have made a bigger deal about it but at a new job, I didn’t want to be the girl making a fuss on her first day. Just makes you think, none of this would have happened if I was a boy.” – Anonymous, Food Service.

I got a job at a bar in my first year of uni where the uniform that I had to wear, was a cheerleading outfit – it was a very short skirt and tiny crop top. It's wasn’t optional, all the girls had to wear them. I worked there for a year and in that year I had countless men make comments about my breasts, click at me, whistle at me and tell me to 'bend over and pick up that glass again'. I also had about 6/7 incidents where men have taken photos of me, of course only the ones that I had caught red handed, got kicked out. I'm an employee and I am there to give you a good time and serve you on a night out with your friends, I do not expect you to sexualize me, have some respect.” – Anonymous, Bar Worker.

One day I went into work and found my colleagues having a debate about a certain issue. I was so shocked since the conversation is usually about nights out or gossiping. I decided to try and join in by stating the fact that “I don’t agree with that, I’m actually a huge feminist” to which a manager replied “oh god I didn’t know you were a lesbian”. I have no idea where his logic was and it became apparent that he really didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. Why did he feel the need to be so disrespectful and make assumptions about me? Where was his professionalism? To this day I am yet to find out.” – Anonymous, Retail.

I know I’ve suffered sexism from previous employers who I thought valued me. It’s the little things that make you realise how certain people still think of women, even though they might not be explicitly or crudely sexist, it is apparent that we as women are clearly not as highly valued. “You need some strong boys in here!” Having a physical job I’ve heard this countless times... depending on the situation I’ve had a variety of reactions: laugh it off- mainly as to remain ‘professional’ or to save the hassle. A simple eye roll and ignore it. Or if I’m feeling extra empowered I like “do we, I think us girls are doing an exceptional job but feel free to take over and we can get to the good stuff, like tackling sexism taking over the world!”…

I’m actually currently working in an all-female environment which I absolutely love and cherish and feel so incredibly lucky to be around such strong, independent, clever, brilliantly hilarious, beautiful women every day. – Anonymous, Sport.

On the International Women’s day, I challenge you to demand the respect you deserve. Do not stand for anything less. And carry on the conversation. Share your stories because we are all listening. We must, together, #PressForProgress.