We are all – women included – capable of sexist remarks. At work and in our everyday dealings with other people, with friends, in shops, in transit, in pubs, we constantly edit our discourse. What we say in mixed company is governed by how well we know the participants, and how little we wish to be thought a pervert or a pillock by saying something offensive. But among friends we can amuse each other with the language of innuendo, physical observations, personal abuse and risqué jokes. Elsewhere – in the boardroom, when visiting in-laws, at the doctor's, when negotiating a bank loan – we are formal, judicious, restrained. We keep a lid on the smut.No.
At work, though, the borders become blurred. Many of the old hierarchies have disappeared, along with the private office, the factory floor and the typing pool. We are more like friendly acquaintances working together. We seem more like equals than masters and slaves. Does that mean we can talk to each other as gendered beings rather than co-workers?
Because there’s no level playing field, and the rules of Victimhood Poker hold sway…
Today, we're so concerned about "inappropriate" dress, conversation or even opinions, that these shocking practices are unlikely to return. But we are now unsure of the exact rules of workplace engagement. If a woman can say, "I like your shirt, Mike – lovely shade of blue" to a male colleague, can he say "I like your top, Sally" or "Those are nice jeans, Celia" without being suspected of staring at Sally's breasts and Celia's bottom? If the boss says, "You're looking hot today, Fiona," without being accused of anything worse than flirting, can Imogen return the compliment without being accused of attempted seduction? Is flirting allowed at all, or should it be discouraged? Is it acceptable to touch a colleague on the arm, shoulder or back, to make a point, to indicate solidarity, or to squeeze past them? If a colleague starts talking about a sexual escapade in his or her past, are we duty-bound to shut them up because they're treating us as confidantes, not colleagues?An announcement by a man that he plans to do some washing or some cooking is met with disbelief in my office, with calls of 'Do you know where the oven is?'. Similarly, if one of us has a car or other mechanical problem, the favour is returned with 'Don't forget the indicators aren't where you hang your handbag!'.
Is that now actionable, should some newbie join the office and turn out to be a humourless bitch or stuck-up prig?It's a nice thought. But I wonder. As DumbJon points out, there's too many vested interests who see this as a way to get ahead of the game.
Once you start wondering about the rules, and attempting to codify them, you know how silly it is. Work environments are places whose rules are tacitly agreed. There will always be exhibitionists, loudmouths, sexpots, lotharios, people who dress like mice or like undertakers and people who defy dress codes, people who never speak and people who throw the C-word around like Folkstone dockers. Together, if we're lucky, we find a discourse that lets us get some work done on a professional level while amusing each other on a personal one. If we cross the line and treat each other as figures of fun, as servants or sexual prospects, we'll soon be told by the faces around us that we've gone too far. We won't need the tabloid press, or Sky News, to remind us to show each other the respect we crave to be shown ourselves.
Update: Via The Grim Reaper, some even wiser words from a surprising source.