The Sex Debate

Well that was interesting, entertaining and thought provoking ……

I’m sitting here digesting last Thursday’s excellent WDF Sex Debate, kindly sponsored by Mourant Ozannes, and presented by Managing Partner Jessica Roland with Carly Parrott and Rachel Guthrie, they did a great job debating both sides of the argument on questions such as – “Do the protections provided by Guernsey law fulfil their purpose in eradicating harassment in the workplace?” “Has a fear of accusation led to a sterile workplace culture of blame and mistrust?” “Has social media exacerbated the problem?” and “Should workplace romances be prohibited?” all were excellent discussions.

And what I really wanted to find out was – when does harmless banter actually become sexual harassment? Having grown up in the 70s and started work in the 80s, I’ve lived through some “interesting” times shall we say!  Well the answer would appear to be – when “unwanted conduct which is related to sex which has either the purpose or the effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person” or in other words, when the receiver perceives the actions or comments as offensive, regardless of the intention. Wow – that sounds tricky to manage! Certainly for my generation, we had to learn pretty quickly to just laugh it off, we really had no choice. But how have things changed in the workplace since 1998, when the unfair dismissal law, and 2005, when the Sex Discrimination law were introduced in Guernsey? For a start it is now possible to make claims for constructive unfair dismissal and sex discrimination under the laws, and some local cases were quoted, but maybe the maximum claim of 6 months’ and 3 months’ pay respectively just isn’t enough to out-weigh the negative publicity and reputational damage associated with making a claim?

Going back to this perception thing – how we each perceive things varies so greatly! At my age a wolf whistle would probably make my day, where clearly from the media furore it would appear young Poppy Smart perceived it otherwise. Our perceptions are coloured by a huge variety of factors, as well as age, add in culture, experiences, sensitivity, not to mention the actual context in which the action or comments occur! This point was ably demonstrated by the in-room survey conducted on questions such as – “Is sending a colleague sexy underwear as a Secret Santa, sexual harassment?” The room was completely divided, as was opinion on whether it might be taken as flattering from Victoria’s Secret and less so from M&S! The most emphatic of the survey answers only received a 60% score – revealing, I think, how open to interpretation this subject is in reality.

Also discussed was the rise in harassment cases being brought by men against women, and the double-standard of complaining about sexist comments with a calendar of near-naked fire-fighters on display, along with seemingly endless office conversations about Poldark and his scythe!

Yes we do need to show caution when judging yesterday’s deeds by today’s standards. But what did come home loud and clear at yesterday’s meeting was that nationally, 1/3 of all women report having be subjected to some form of unwanted sexual attention at work, 1 in 8 have left their jobs without reporting the matter and a staggering 45% of the women in the room last week answered, in their perception, they had been on the receiving end of sexual harassment in the work place in Guernsey. I doubt whether all of those were prior to 2005!

Maybe trying to identify what is and isn’t sexual harassment misses the point somewhat, because surely at the end of the day the point is the impact of the unwanted conduct on the persons involved. How it affects confidence levels, job prospects, future behaviour and mental well-being. I hope that in the future, culture in the workplace will eliminate the need to debate such topics at WDF, but for now it would seem, what is or isn’t sexual harassment is still shrouded in 50 shades of grey!