You’d have to have been under a rock not to have noticed the recent focus on Sexual Harassment, especially with a high-profile perpetrator (not giving names because I don’t want to give air time to someone like that by name) being finally outed. What I have spotted too is that virtually every woman I know has been on the receiving end of horrible harassment at some point. For those of the generation I belong to, and the one before (and before that too) it was so common in the workplace that there was a culture of silent acceptance. You didn’t rock the boat because you’d find yourself out of a job if you made a fuss about what was dismissed often as “That’s just what men are like.” I’ve also realised that probably almost every woman has lived in fear of harassment, and not just the verbal kind. I’m not detailing my own experiences (there are many) because it seems futile.
For me, not speaking up is also out of fear, and out of a kind of cultural conditioning that leaves me often feeling like I need to apologise for existing, for taking up space. In the back of my psyche is a version of my mother than constantly undermines attempts to be anything other than subservient, to know my place as a woman. It’s very, very hard to break free of conditioning like that even when you have become aware of it; everything is against it being challenged, even your own psyche. But I am trying, so very, very hard. We owe it to ourselves and to the girls growing up now not to keep silent any more, because it will never be addressed and changed if the sheer prevalence of it is not revealed.
I think I channelled my inner warrior woman who does fight back against harassment into Chloe from Square Peg. I’ve thought about her a lot lately as I started writing a sequel over a year ago, and the more I have analysed her, the more I realise she’s a powerful aspect of myself. She’s polarised readers; some have decided they don’t like her, dismissing her as rude (because she’s forthright and doesn’t take fools gladly) and others see her for her vulnerability. I also think she may well be an Aspie… In the novel she finds herself in conflict with her own profession, when a project she’s meant to be working on is very much against her own conscience. I’m sharing this extract because I really wish I were this tough, this able to handle myself under harassment.
She glanced up as a number of colleagues came into the canteen. There was a certain gung-ho attitude about some of them that irritated her hugely, so she wasn’t pleased when they came over to her table, all loud voices and bravado.
“Hello, Red,” said Dave, who was the loudest of them all. “Hugged any good trees lately?”
She looked at him evenly, actually feeling her fists bunching with instinctive aggression.
He turned to his companions.
“Red here is turning into a hippy, you know that, lads. She went off into the woods yesterday for hours, communing with nature and having a fumble with that other red haired bitch,” he said, and they all sniggered like over-grown schoolboys.
Chloe felt her face flushing.
“Have you not got anything better to do than bother me?” she asked.
“No, we haven’t, since all you hippy-dippy sorts have put a hex on this project,” he said. “Mind you, what else can we expect, employing a woman when we could have had a man. No point expecting anything from a girl.” He said the last word almost as a curse.
Chloe got up very slowly, and faced him. She was actually a little taller than he was but she didn’t feel it.
“If you think I shouldn’t have this job, just go ahead and say it plainly,” she said. “I don’t like this sort of insinuation, and I’m not putting up with it.”
He glanced at his companions and then began leering at her.
“Red’s got PMS, lads, or else she hasn’t had her leg over lately,” he said.
“Grow up,” Chloe said. “You must have some sort of brain or you wouldn’t be here at all; try using it for a change.”
“It’s a scientific fact that men’s brains are bigger than women’s,” he said, still in that jeering tone.
“Yes, well size isn’t everything, I’m sure you’ll be glad to know,” Chloe said. “It’s what you do with it that counts.”
“I know just what to do with it, love,” he said.
“I doubt it.”
“Want to try?”
“Drop dead, moron. I’m not here to entertain the troops.”
“That isn’t what I’ve heard.”
“Then you should get your ears washed out as well as your foul mouth,” Chloe said. “If you’re the best example of the gene pool, then I’d hate to look in the shallow end.”
He went red, then, largely because his friends were listening avidly.
“If you were a man,” he started to say. But Chloe cut him off.
“If I were a man, you’d be on the floor begging for mercy by now,” she said. “You’d never dare to talk to a man the way you’ve just talked to me; and believe me, it’s not lack of brawn that stops me breaking your nose.”
“Yeah? Go on then, try it, Red.”
“No,” Chloe said. “That isn’t exactly fair; after all, you’d not hit a mere woman would you? Even scum like you usually have standards.”
Retrospectively, calling him scum was not the brightest thing to have done, because he swung for her then, palm open in token acknowledgement of her gender, and would have knocked her down even so had she not managed to get her own punch in first, burying her fist deep in his paunchy midriff and doubling him over as he gasped for breath. She put out her foot, and with a sharp kick on the bum, toppled him right over.
“Right,” she said to the others standing behind him, open-mouthed. “Anyone else care to suggest that I’m not up to my job? No? Good.”
Her knees were shaking as she exited the canteen, but they couldn’t see that. As she passed the counter where the dinner ladies were still serving up, there was a ripple of applause, and Chloe grinned at them, and went back to her desk to try and think what she could do.