‘I dealt with rape jokes every day when I worked in an all-male office’
‘You shouldn’t just keep biting your tongue’
The Tab spoke to a 20-something girl who spent six months working in a high-end marketing company. She left after the sexist environment got too much to bear.
When I worked in an all-male office, I endured sexist jokes every day. And the sad, simple reality was that there was very little I could do about it.
At first, it wasn’t an obvious issue. I’m a very easygoing person, and I am good-humoured enough that I won’t explode if someone makes a slightly frowned-upon joke: as long as those jokes are just occasional. But quickly, it got so bad that it made me hate my job. I handed in my notice and left after just over six months.
When I started, “light-hearted” comments about how women can’t play football, how they belong in the kitchen, and how they should do all the cleaning passed me by, mostly. Maybe I’d raise an eyebrow or give a disapproving look, but generally these things seemed quite harmless.
Men working on their own wouldn’t direct jokes like that at me, and I seemed to get on with everyone despite being the only woman, so it was clearly just a marginal “lad culture” thing that manifested when they were all together. Plus, everyone’s work socials end up at strip clubs..right?
When we went out for drinks or lunches, the men at work would flirt and wolf whistle at female passers-by. They would joke about how badly they wanted to shag the waitress, and make fun of large women who they didn’t find attractive. I still didn’t think too much of it – it was unprofessional and inappropriate, but it was still harmless, right?
But it started to make me feel quite uncomfortable. It kept happening and there was only so much I could “laugh off”. I didn’t find it funny, but felt pressured to laugh at my boss’s jokes. It was only when things got a bit more serious that I decided I should perhaps be more concerned.
Topics of conversation at lunch would include how women playing sport was “hilarious” and that their sports shouldn’t receive funding, that women who wear make-up are plastic, that women have to shag their boss to work their way up the ladder, that women cheating on men is far worse than men cheating on women, that only fat ugly women are funny, that attractive women who try and be funny are just a joke and should stop trying…
I argued back and voiced my disbelief and outrage at some of the comments they would make, but I very quickly realised that I was in the extreme minority, and it became more and more difficult to fight my battles with just me myself and I against what felt like the world.
If I heard a sexist “joke” or comment that made me feel uncomfortable and I didn’t want to respond or laugh, they would say, “why can’t you have a sense of humour? Are you on your period or something?” Yes, it is that “time of the month”. That’s exactly why I’m saying women and men should be paid equally – you’ve nailed it.
It got to the point where I felt very self-conscious at work – did they make sexual comments about me? Do I fall into the “unattractive, make-up” category? Or am I considered to be one of the “wannabe comedians”? I love experimenting with clothes and make-up, but suddenly I felt very wary of how I would be judged if I wore a skirt to work – because that would mean I’m asking for it, right?
I slowly realised that I preferred wearing very simple clothes to work – ones that did not highlight my figure in a flattering way, like big jumpers. I’d make no effort with my hair or make-up. If I was meeting my boyfriend that evening and wanted to look a bit dressier, I would go to the bathroom on the way out of the office to fix my hair, do my make-up and change my outfit. I felt pressured to behave like a man at work and it was horrible.
There were times when I thought, “OK, maybe I am being a bit sensitive and should try and relax more”. I would stride into work with a positive and optimistic attitude, offer to make everyone coffee and start the day with a smile. This sometimes worked for a week or so, but usually, it would only last about two days before the topic of say, rape, would come up from a case on the news and I would hear something along the lines of, “some girls really do ask for it don’t they though, I mean what do you expect if you go out dressed as a slut?” My smile would fade. I’d spend the rest of the day trying not to think about it.
Sexism ground away at me; I found myself struggling to stand up for what I believed in. It would affect me outside work, too: I would take all the negativity home with me. I was being bullied.
I found it very hard to genuinely enjoy the company of my colleagues, therefore I found myself saying things that I wouldn’t normally say and acting in ways I wouldn’t normally act just to try and fit in – essentially being quite fake. I hated that I conformed to the culture and sacrificed my true colours, because to begin with, all I wanted to do was stand up for myself and what I believed in. But it got to the point where I was so used to being shot down or laughed at, that it was easier to sometimes just nod along, or just ignore it.
My advice to anyone in the same situation is, please never ignore it.
It took me far too long to realise it was an issue. As a young professional, I was so eager to do well and fit in, that I ignored the things that I felt strongly about and submitted myself to taking the easy option, not the right option.
When I voiced my concern to those with an influence, the advice I was given was, “to give as good as I got”. If I didn’t take things personally or if I joined in with the jokes that made me feel uncomfortable, then I would be “accepted more”. One phrase that has stuck in my head was that the best way to deal with the culture was to, “suck it up and walk through hell smiling”. I don’t think my leaving fairly reflects my levels of perseverance.
As told anonymously to Tom Jenkin.