Sexual harassment doesn’t make headlines

2013-07-24 10:00

Like you, I was disappointed about the revelations of professional misconduct involving former SA Revenue Service boss Oupa Magashula.

What really had me seething, though, was the sexual innuendo that wafted through that incriminating transcript like a bad stink.

And I was angrier still for the fact that this type of impropriety will only get casual mention.

It’s so disheartening to have confirmed on paper the fact that part of getting ahead in the workplace for a woman takes some manoeuvring around male chauvinism, manifested many times in sexually suggestive speech. And that it has to simply become part of a woman’s survival arsenal to learn to duck and dive to avoid it.

I have shared workplace stories with many female colleagues and friends about the type of rubbish we have all had to put up with from the moment we entered the workplace. And how sometimes, especially when starting out, you have to giggle like a child to get through it – much like the woman does in that transcript.

I have had as a young reporter a news editor who found it funny to repeatedly ask me what the last four letters of my surname mean (ask a Zulu-speaking friend), a senior who was training me who thought it imperative to confess that he liked to watch my bum when I walked past, and having to suffer through a promotion negotiation where a boss used sexual and dating rhetoric to express how much of an asset I was to the company.

A friend of mine who was once an investment banker in London said when a male colleague rubbed her bum at a pub (apparently something he did with new female staff), she got a special call from the big boss to tell her what a great family man this guy was.

She rightly took his suggestion that she must not misunderstand his actions as a threat to shut up.

An entrepreneur said she had learnt to limit all her business dealings with men during the day because anything after hours tended to morph into a date.

And another, who worked for UNAids, did not go to conferences sans her wedding band (though she was single) as some kind of deterrent against the prowling men.

I’m not as naive or young as to expect that there will never be sexual frisson in an office or work environment. Frankly, so long as it is between consenting adults and covered by company policy, I really don’t care who sleeps with whom.

What I am talking about is the unsolicited, chauvinistic talk from men that quickly gets sexual and has become general office culture.

Unsolicited sexual talk is always difficult to manoeuvre around, and it is especially more so in an office environment where the benefits of speaking up have to be weighed against your career. It’s more insidious than catcalls from male strangers because it can even come up in boardroom discussions that involve your future.

The improper nature of the conversation in the Magashula transcript aside, I am not sure why this could not have been a straightforward conversation. I am, of course, speculating here but the woman seemed to just want to know the details of the “offer” to make the right career decision.

But first she had to wade through comments about her being single and taking a bath, things not to tell “dad” and a condescending opinion on how much Magashula thought she deserved to earn, as if she was a child. These are topics that would never feature in a business conversation between males, improper or otherwise.

And what irks me even further when it comes to male prejudice is that the responsibility always rests on the female to rise above it – much like

what you see DA Parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko having to do in Parliament.

It’s been decades since women entered the workplace, yet it still remains a hostile terrain because even good men refuse to transform.

It does get better as you grow older, but it’s simply because you learn how to diplomatically tell people to back off. But still, the responsibility is on you as a woman and that makes me sick.

»?Mdyogolo is a writer and editor based in Cape Town

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