Peer to peer feedback and sexual harassment in the workplace

Reading Esther Derby’s article on peer to peer feedback made me remember something that happened a few years ago (not here, I hasten to add). I’m sharing this as an example of how peer to peer feedback can resolve a situation, so that any women out there who are experiencing something similar might take courage and do something about it, and because maybe it might give any men out there who indulge in this kind of behaviour an idea of what it’s like to be on the other side. This, gentlemen, is why the sexual harassment and discrimination laws were invented, and why so many women end up in court and the front page of the Times.

The company had a fairly laddish, alcohol-fuelled culture with only a few women (about 10%). The lines of ‘appropriate behaviour’ were somewhat blurred. If you’re female, have attractive qualities, and want to know what it’s like to work in a company with this kind of culture, go down to your local next time England are playing on a Saturday afternoon and take a seat. Hang around after the game. Most of the attention will be on the football, just as most of the company got on with their work, but there will be the occasional innuendo or flirtatious comment that may not be entirely unwelcome. Plenty of women thrive on attention. I certainly enjoyed my time with the company, and was sorry to leave the many friends I had made there.

However, sometimes blurred lines get crossed. This is the story of one such incident.

We had a secure project in the basement with no network access. An office upstairs had been set aside as a “daylight room”; a place where people could come to check their mail, browse the web and stare out of the window. I was off-project, and had been assigned a spare computer there to get on with training. So there I was, trying to concentrate, while across the way my colleagues were trying to guess the cup sizes of various women whose unclad attributes were displayed across the 19 inch monitor.

Now, I’m not easily shocked, and I could probably have ignored it, or just asked, “Honestly – do you have nothing better to do with your time?” But there was another aspect to this that stopped me from saying anything – something which made me sit as quietly as I could, blushing to the roots of my hair, and trying to bury myself in my work. The three gentlemen who were standing up behind the one colleague I knew were staring across at me, whispering amongst themselves, gesturing and giggling like schoolboys; applying their imaginations in the spirit of the competition to the only real-life example in the room.

I had three options. I could have stayed quiet and ignored it, and hoped it didn’t happen again, or maybe gone out and made a cup of tea till they moved on. I could have taken my problem to the senior management, or to the MD, both of whom were quite laddish themselves but understood the lines better than the younger company staff. The option I chose was the most difficult, and I only did it because – well, did you read my apprenticeship story? The rather scathing review that I got in my earlier years regarding the quality of my code? No one gave that review to me to my face, and finding out six months later hurt. Like a physical blow. It said more about people’s ability to talk to me, or their care for my work and professional well-being, than it did about my code. This was only a month or so after the review, and it was very fresh in my mind. So I took the third option, and caught the one colleague I knew (let’s call him Ted; not his real name) as he was leaving the room.

“Ted, can you spare a couple of minutes?”

“Sure. What’s up?”

“It’s the material you were looking at over lunch. I’d prefer it if you didn’t do that again. It’s distracting, and it made me feel very uncomfortable.”

“Oh. Um, okay. I didn’t think you’d mind; you’re pretty open-minded about that kind of thing. I’ve never seen it bother you before; we were just having a laugh.”

“Ted, do you know what your friends were doing while you were browsing the site?”

He didn’t. I told him. Blushing furiously.

“Oh. God, Liz, I’m so sorry. You must have been really embarassed. I had no idea…”

“No, I could tell. Ted, you need to know that this was hard for me. I nearly went to the MD instead of talking to you, because I feel embarassed just confronting you about this. Maybe there are other women in this company who’d do that. You shouldn’t make assumptions about how people will react to that kind of content, or how it will make them feel.”

“Liz, thank you. I’m glad that you told me; I can tell that it was difficult for you, but I really appreciate it. I’ll talk to the others and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

We got on just fine after that.

I can’t actually imagine a more difficult and embarassing situation to be in than that one (except those incidents at office parties that are problems entirely of our own making!), but in retrospect I’m really glad I dealt with it this way. It’s given me the confidence to take people aside when I need to. I try not to let third parties deliver my messages any more. Because of this new confidence, I was able to help a developer I was mentoring become aware of his mistakes and improve his coding techniques well before his review. I was able to tell a colleague that smoking cigars is not better for you than cigarettes, and they smell far worse. I was able to tell the team leader who gave me the poor review about my frustration with getting the feedback on my code so late. Before I left, I also had a frank, open-minded and constructive discussion with a senior manager regarding the company culture and the problems it presented to female staff. And I told him this story as I’ve just told it to you.

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