John Walsh: Colleagues – not rules – will tell us when we've gone too far

We are all - women included - capable of sexist remarks. But if we're lucky, we find a discourse that lets us get some work done while at the same time amusing each other

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Andy Gray has been several things in his 55 years – footballer, commentator, pundit, broadcaster, "brand ambassador" – but, as of this week, he has only one title. He is the Soccer Sexist – disgraced, discredited, dumped, the object of public ridicule and vilification.

His offence was appalling. He was seen in the Sky Sports TV studio during a rehearsal for a Christmas special. As presenters were having microphone cables attached to their clothing, Gray fiddled with his trousers and said to his co-presenter Charlotte Jackson, "Tuck this in here for me, love." Ms Jackson made no reply, and merely adjusted her own microphone down the front of her dress. It's possible she didn't notice his suggestion but it is unlikely she would have swooned with embarrassment at his words; she has, after all, appeared in abbreviated beachwear in down-market lads' magazines. But after the footage went viral on YouTube, compounding his earlier mockery of a female line judge, the balloon went up.

Gray was sacked from his £1.7m-a-year job. Sky Sports called his behaviour "unacceptable and offensive." The Sun, that famous scourge of sexist attitudes, tut-tutted like a duchess about his "Stone Age coarseness" and said, "Andy Gray cannot accept women as equals and sees them as sex objects to be belittled and patronised." Football ace Ian Wright was wheeled on to say, "There is no question that was unacceptable. In any other line of work it would be cause for dismissal and football can't be different. He had to go."

There are, of course, several hidden agendas at work here. The Sun is anxious to show itself as a modern, inoffensive, non-discriminatory newspaper, which displays pictures of topless girls purely in a sense of fun (you can tell by the hilariously po-faced quotations from Montaigne and Lucretius that are put in their mouths.) Sky doesn't want to be associated with anyone The Sun considers a sexist dinosaur. Ian Wright, as an ambassador for British football, is determined that it shouldn't be thought to lack the sophistication of its European rivals. And there seem to be an awful lot of people out there who really dislike Mr Gray.

Anyone who has ever gone on television knows the tiny frisson of intimacy that accompanies the poking of a mic wire inside your shirt; it's often the occasion for ribald exchanges, without anyone being reported or fired. Wright's remark, however, deserves a second look. Is it true that "in any other line of work," sexist remarks would be grounds for dismissal? Is cheeky banter really a sacking offence?

We are all – women included – capable of sexist remarks. At work and in our everyday dealings with other people, with friends, in shops, in transit, in pubs, we constantly edit our discourse. What we say in mixed company is governed by how well we know the participants, and how little we wish to be thought a pervert or a pillock by saying something offensive. But among friends we can amuse each other with the language of innuendo, physical observations, personal abuse and risqué jokes. Elsewhere – in the boardroom, when visiting in-laws, at the doctor's, when negotiating a bank loan – we are formal, judicious, restrained. We keep a lid on the smut.

At work, though, the borders become blurred. Many of the old hierarchies have disappeared, along with the private office, the factory floor and the typing pool. We are more like friendly acquaintances working together. We seem more like equals than masters and slaves. Does that mean we can talk to each other as gendered beings rather than co-workers?

Newspaper offices, I'm sorry to report, used to be places of unrestrained sexism. In the late 1980s, before Fleet Street was broken up, when typewriters were still used and daily papers were launched on a tidal wave of alcohol, women staffers were routinely subjected to taunts and remarks that wouldn't be out of place in the office of DCI Gene Hunt. Should the Home News secretary kneel down to retrieve a ballpoint from under the desk, a dozen cries of "Doreen, love, while you're down there..." would spring from male throats. The sight of a large-breasted reporter pummelling a typewriter would have sweaty male hacks telephoning each others' extensions, urging them to come and look. With remarkable hypocrisy, a woman could be chastised for wearing something too short or too plunging (or both) just so the chastiser could enjoy discussing her body for a few squirm-inducing minutes.

Today, we're so concerned about "inappropriate" dress, conversation or even opinions, that these shocking practices are unlikely to return. But we are now unsure of the exact rules of workplace engagement. If a woman can say, "I like your shirt, Mike – lovely shade of blue" to a male colleague, can he say "I like your top, Sally" or "Those are nice jeans, Celia" without being suspected of staring at Sally's breasts and Celia's bottom? If the boss says, "You're looking hot today, Fiona," without being accused of anything worse than flirting, can Fiona return the compliment without being accused of attempted seduction? Is flirting allowed at all, or should it be discouraged? Is it acceptable to touch a colleague on the arm, shoulder or back, to make a point, to indicate solidarity, or to squeeze past them? If a colleague starts talking about a sexual escapade in his or her past, are we duty-bound to shut them up because they're treating us as confidantes, not colleagues?

Once you start wondering about the rules, and attempting to codify them, you know how silly it is. Work environments are places whose rules are tacitly agreed. There will always be exhibitionists, loudmouths, sexpots, lotharios, people who dress like mice or like undertakers and people who defy dress codes, people who never speak and people who throw the C-word around like Folkstone dockers. Together, if we're lucky, we find a discourse that lets us get some work done on a professional level while amusing each other on a personal one. If we cross the line and treat each other as figures of fun, as servants or sexual prospects, we'll soon be told by the faces around us that we've gone too far. We won't need the tabloid press, or Sky News, to remind us to show each other the respect we crave to be shown ourselves.

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