Yesterday, at work, I had to attend a workshop on equal opportunity, sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying in the workplace. This seemed to be a bit of overkill where I'm concerned after years of perfecting my harassment skills but hey, in the spirit of continuous improvement, I went along.
The presentation was as interesting as it could be thanks to the stories of personal experience our HR Manager shared. As she talked about how it was to work in the world before law protected people in the workplace from discrimination, I remembered too a number of my experiences. Back in those days you have to understand, there was no where to go; no one to tell; you either dealt with it yourself or you changed jobs.
My first job was at a company called the Natural Gas Corporation of New Zealand. I was initially employed as a clerk but after a few months, was offered a draughting apprenticeship. The petrochemical industry at that time was (and may still be) a very male dominated industry. If you were a girl at NGC you worked in the administration area - maybe accounting - but until Esther* came to work there a few years after I started my apprenticeship, girls in the engineering area of the company just didn't exist.
They hired two apprentices - me and a guy. When the job was offered to me, my boss's boss said "We're offering you this job on the proviso you do NOT GET PREGNANT!"
Imagine how it might go down saying that to a person you were offering a job today.
Anyhoo - I was an extremely fortunate person to be offered that job. The apprenticeship taught me many things not the least of which was that hardening up was preferable to chickening out. I had a number of startling instances of harassment in my four year apprenticeship but I'm only going to tell you about one of those instances today.
As a draughtsman (I still prefer that to 'draughtsperson') I would stand at my drawing board because, more often than not, it was tilted quite vertically as we worked on A1 and A0 sheets of draughting paper. I would be working away, oblivious to people and concentrating on measuring, marking and mitering my corners.
We draughtsman worked closely with the engineers of the office and they came and went from our drawing areas when they needed to collaborate with the other draughtsman. One draughtsman took to coming up quietly behind me, pressing his front against my back while I was standing, working at my drawing board, and cupping my breasts in my hands and saying "Pwharrrr".
Again, imagine how that would perceived in a workplace today.
There had been an instance of the Administration Manager playing with girls' bra straps in the typing pool and although the girls had complained, nothing had happened. Given the world of the early 1980s, the precedent set by the admin girls having to suffer their manager's adances, and knowing that I would be excluded from the male group if I made an official complaint (and then, to whom? ) I felt I couldn't do anything about the situation and so suffered with it.
But after a while, and not even a long while, I just couldn't 'suffer' it any more. His actions were making me feel uncomfortable, awkward, embarrassed. All the other draughtsman thought it was hilarious so you can add humiliated to the list of crap I was putting up with. I didn't have an idea of how to stop it and I didn't have anyone I could tell. I told him not to do it - subtly and directly - but he just laughed (because no one ever takes me seriously about anything ever) and continued getting a full-boob grope and hump whenever he felt like it.
One day I walked into our office, and the gropey engineer was standing with another draughtsman, deep in discussion over the details of the plan in front of them. His back was to me and so he didn't see me come up behind him - hells, I didn't even know what I was going to do - I just saw him and reacted on instinct.
I walked up behind him and pressed my body against his back. He startled and half looking over his shoulder, smiled back at me. I reached down between his legs and cupped his testicles in my hand.
For what seemed like an unseemly amount of time** I held his balls and he remained in a suddenly stock-still and somewhat alarmed state. Leaning in, my warm breath against his ear I whispered "Next time you come up behind me and touch my breasts, I'll rip these off."
Happily I can report he never did touch my breasts again and for the most part, kept his distance. Although he did scoop me up in his arms at the Christmas party and we ended up fully clothed in the swimming pool - a situation I was very unhappy with - but at least he did not touch my breasts.
Life is a marathon people, not a sprint. Small wins - small wins.
* An extremely intelligent mechanical engineer.
**I'd never touched a man there in my life. In fact, I'd never touched a man! Virginal Michelle - that was me.