Danger: women at work

In London, a City broker complains she's been ostracised by the lads. In New York, Wall Street bankers have been accused of behaving like babes. Why should women have it both ways? Because, for far too long, men have had it all their own way
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The Independent Culture
Do you want sex at work? That is not as straightforward a question as it might first appear. We live in a time when many of the key battles for female equality have moved out of the domestic sphere and into the work place. How men and women treat each other at work is an increasing preoccupation. Do they promote each other? Exclude one another? Sexually harass each other? Zillions of stereotypes about working women pour out of the media every single day. From the predatory female boss of Disclosure to doe-eyed Ally McBeal in the Channel Four series of the same name (both incidentally are male creations), they reflect our anxiety about the cultural shifts produced by a greater number of women than ever before entering the workforce.

An advert produced by Jockey which shows five gorgeous young women wearing power jackets on their top halves and only `hosiery' on their bottom halves has caused a stir in America because the women featured are not models. When these five women are not having their fantastic legs photographed they are in fact bankers and brokers on Wall Street. Are they doing a disservice to their sisters by posing in such a way, or are they simply having fun? Some women's rights organisations don't think that this is fun at all. "Women embroiled in sexual harassment situations don't have the luxury to joke about like this," says Gretchen Primark, the president of Women's Rights at Work. Well, that's true but many women who are not as young or as attractive as these women also don't have the luxury to mess about like this either. What are we going to do about it though? Whatever equal rights legislation can achieve can not change the reality that in terms of sexual appeal some women are always going to be more equal than others.

Contrast these leggy `Bond Babes' with Julie Edgehill, a City dealer for a Dutch Bank in London against whom she has lost a claim for sexual discrimination. Edgehill, in her late thirties was made redundant though she had fifteen years experience. She complained of being ostracised because she was not one of the lads. Describing her isolation and the destruction of her confidence as the men turned their backs on her to talk about football, she said, "If I tried to give my point of view, it was sort of pooh-poohed".

Edgehill's experience isn't uncommon. Over the last few years we have seen a number of cases where women suffer institutionalised discrimination and harassment. The police force and the military have been notoriously bad at managing such cases resorting often to a line of defence which assumes that because the woman in question is a sexual being, it is her own fault and that a certain level of sexual banter is harmless.

There is even a line of thought which casts men as victims who can be hauled before an industrial tribunal just because some uptight woman has taken their silly jokes and harmless flirtation seriously. We are better educated about what sexual harassment actually means, but we still find situations where powerful men defend their colleagues' behaviour when it is indefensible. If Andrew Neil at The European fails to fire Gerry Malone, who hit a female colleague after she refused his sexual advances, he will be sending out a striking message about what he considers acceptable behaviour in the work place to be.

Yet we are better it seems at drawing up clear guidelines about sexual harassment than we are about sexual discrimination.

Harassment is never subtle whereas discrimination often can be. Many women complain of their exclusion from the traditional playing fields and clubs where key decisions and appointments are often made.

Yet certain facts have to be faced here. The utopian feminist ideal conjures up the workplace as neutral territory, as a sex-free zone. One wonders whether this is ever going to be likely or indeed desirable. Work is still the place where many people meet their partners, so not all sex at work constitutes sexual harassment. Even men who claim to be confused about the signals that women are sending out should know the difference between someone responding to their sexual interest and someone who hides every time they appear.

Ally McBeal has excited much interest because it is said that she actively blurs the signals. On one hand she is a successful lawyer in a thrusting law firm, on the other she is neurotically vulnerable. One wonders how she wins any cases at all as most of her working life is involved in crisis management of her personal life. I cannot bear the slogan that advertises the series: "Single, successful, falling apart" as it implies that successful working women are inevitably unhappy beings who just need a good man to pull themselves together again. If the problem with most women is that they need a good seeing to, the problem with feminists or those like Ally, who hum a feminist tune without ever knowing the words, is that they need even more of a seeing to than the average woman. As reassuring as this may be to male viewers it is this, rather than Ally's short skirts, that women should worry about.

Yet what Ally McBeal highlights is simply that female sexuality is still seen as disruptive to the smooth running of the corporate world. Ally's problems stem from the fact that she has a sexual past. She appears trapped by her sexuality in a way that the male characters do not. "Get a life!" I find myself yelling at the TV, "One that doesn't involve every jerk you've ever slept with!" It is her psychological make-up that is holding her back rather than her ever moist lipstick. Would her difficulties disappear if her skirts were three inches longer? Hardly. She is, as she says, in that horrible Americanism deeply "conflicted". Aren't we all? Would the `Bond Babes' not be looked upon on as sexually attractive women if their co-workers had never seen their legs? I don't think so somehow.

The idea then, that women's dress at work is somehow to blame for their problems is a red herring. Just as we understand rape is rape no matter what the victim is wearing, so harassment is harassment whether the woman is in a trouser suit or a summer dress. This does not mean however that we can deny the reality that male corporate costume is fundamentally boring and that even female formal dress is eroticised. Linda Grant, writing in The Guardian comments that "Men conform at work, why do women think they shouldn't have to?" Yet even women in `sensible' suits will attract attention. Nor does this argument take into account the liberation that women have felt in being able to dress how they want to. As fashion changes women expose far more of their bodies than ever before. Young women show their midriffs and legs not simply to gain male approval but because this is how they choose to look. Dress codes in every area of society have become more relaxed. Some feminists come on like old puritans if they think that covering up the female form will remove temptation from men and therefore make women's lives easier. This `new Victorian' attitude casts woman as temptresses and men as entirely stupid creatures unable to distinguish between unwanted sexual attention and mutual enjoyment. It also means that women have to disavow their sexuality if they are to be taken seriously. Yet as every woman knows even if she is not dressed up in a French Maid's outfit, she will rarely be allowed to forget the fact that she is female. Equality will only be realised when hiring and firing is based as much on female whims as it is on the peculiar rituals of male bonding.

To demand then, that women should dress how they like and that this should not interfere with their treatment at work is to demand that we have it both ways. But as men have had it entirely their own way for some time now it is only reasonable. They will have to learn to adjust. If men want to strut about the office in skimpy t-shirts and shorts, that is fine by me. I will continue to respect them as professionals as long as they get the job done.

The creation of an artificially de-sexed environment is not the answer. Let us not recast female sexuality and success as inherently problematic when so many of the problems are caused by male sexuality within a system that takes for granted male privilege and male power. These assumptions are really what is "falling apart". I see little wrong with the `Bond Babes' or Ally McBeal's legs. It's what they do with their brains that matters.

But to find that in ten years time that the `Bond Babes' are no longer players and that Ally McBeal doesn't have her own law firm would surely be far more shocking than a glimpse of stocking.