Emma is a young woman is in the third month of her training contract at a City law firm. Her supervisor is called Harry. Simon, another lawyer comes up to her desk and says ‘Look, I know you are Harry’s b*tch, but I need you to do this for me.’
Where do you start with this? The gratuitous insult? The casual sexism? The abuse of position and power? There is nothing so visible and impactful as behaviour. It’s visceral and immediate. It’s what happens between two human beings. It goes to the heart of who we are. And so often we think it’s about us. That it’s our fault. That somehow, we must have done something to make this happen, to make this other person behave in this way.
And what is Emma to do about Simon? (The names, of course, have been changed.) Complain to HR? Challenge this older man, a partner in the firm in which she hopes to progress her professional life, a man who has the power to advance or to block the advancement of her career? No. She does nothing. She endures, rationalises, explains away. ‘It’s just banter. He doesn’t mean anything.’ She returns to her work, gets on with her day. But the feeling of violation lingers.
Does using the language of ‘violation’ sound like an over-reaction? A disproportionate response to a casual comment? We don’t think so. Simon has daughters. Would he call his daughter derogatory names? His wife? No. Would he be angry if someone else, another man, talked to his daughter or his wife, with disrespect? Yes. Simon’s behaviour is hypocritical, disgraceful, unacceptable. But what is his employer to do? Dismiss everyone who falls short? Everyone whose behaviour fails to meet the standard?