corporate strategies: 8 - In the company of men: sexism at work

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The Independent Culture
There is one sign to which any career-minded woman should always pay attention: "Danger: Men at Work". These are one of the most unpleasant dangers a girl can face in her career. Because unlike the average company director, sexism has a habit of raising its ugly head in the workplace. A recent survey reported that half of all secretaries face sexual harassment at work - this being, presumably, the bottom half.

Sadly, even in the Nineties, often the only good thing a man can envisage about a woman climbing above him on the career ladder is that he might get to see up her skirt. If a woman receives promotion in preference to a male colleague, the male colleague will inevitably think, "Bitch! She only got the job because she's a woman." Should the woman have been promoted over a female colleague, the response will be far more sympathetic. She will think, "Bitch! She only got the job because she's thinner than me."

This remains largely a women-only problem. You do, occasionally, hear of men having unnecessary and obscene advances made towards them. But this is still generally restricted to Jeffrey Archer and his publisher.

In this era of political correctness, It is all too easy for innocent remarks to be misconstrued as harassment. For male employers, then, a few pointers to avoid being misinterpreted:

By all means compliment female subordinates. But be tactful. "Excellent word-processing, Miss Brown" will be far more appreciated than "By 'eck! You don't half type fast for a fat lass!"

Do not address juniors as "darling", "ducky", "pet", "cupcake" or "sweetie pie", unless you are a junior-school teacher (even if you are, they may still sue you). Male directors may address other male directors as "Muffy" or "Buffy" - but only if they went to the same public school.

Do not expect a woman willingly to get your lunch for you, particularly not if she works in the staff canteen.

A leather-bound diary on your desk will afford you respect and admiration. A leather-bound secretary on your desk will have the opposite effect.

The phrase "phwoooarrh, I wouldn't mind giving her one" is acceptable only if discussing a pay hike.

Murmuring sweet nothings is also frowned upon - your secretary will prefer it if you dictate clearly and distinctly. The only time you are expected to murmur sweet nothings is when she asks how much her Christmas bonus is.

Contrary to some bosses' opinion, "Temp" is not an abbreviation for "Temptress". (It is, of course, an abbreviation for "temperamental, workshy young person with limited shorthand skills and surly attitude".)

Women no longer feel the need to sleep their way to the top. The only long, pink organ the modern career woman will be prepared to get to grips with to elevate her status is the Financial Times. The only time she sleeps with her colleagues is during directors' meetings.

Don't expect to get away with sexism just because you're president of the company. If you're President of the US, though, you may just manage it.

And for the women reading (reading? What are you doing reading? Haven't you any filing to do? This company doesn't run itself, young lady ...), a few signs that your boss's behaviour is going a bit below the belt:

Simply because you have been hired as his "right-hand woman" does not oblige you to perform all the tasks formerly delegated to his right hand.

Your boss can't sack you for wearing an excessively skimpy pelmet skirt.

Nor can he sack you for not wearing an excessively skimpy pelmet skirt.

Do not jump to conclusions. Phrases like "I'd like you to run that up my flagpole again, Miss Tompkins, and see if anything salutes" are not necessarily a sign that your colleague is a harasser. They may mean he is a poseur.

Readers still in doubt about sexism in the workplace would be well advised to consider one of Demi Moore's role in Indecent Proposal - as a woman who receives pounds 1m for one night of her time. This never happens in Real Life. In the modern business world, it's only ever men who get such cushy directorships.