Hermione Eyre: A catcall is not only sexist, it's bad for business

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Builders working on Wimpey construction sites across Bristol were banned last week from wolf-whistling. Was this a spoilsport piece of petty bureaucracy, or a fillip for women's rights?

You walk out of work, and stride down the road, not even conscious of your gender, just thinking your own busy thoughts. Then a builder turns round. And there it comes: the long, swooping two-note innuendo, half-cocky, half-ironic, wholly irritating. That put YOU in your place, didn't it? Suddenly you're not a person any more – and you're definitely not an executive. You're a bit of fluff, a walk-on bint in a Sixties sex comedy. You thought you had dressed for work, for comfort, for style. Silly you! You'd dressed for the delectation of the paunchy man with the hard hat and the dirty overalls.

You think about retaliating. Maybe you could jovially tell him to keep his eyes on his drill/ shovel/cement mixer? A mistake; he'd only turn it into some kind of double entendre. (Trust me: builders can make brickbats without straw.) You could stamp your foot and swear at him, but that would be (a) evidence of "no sense of humour" and (b) to use Mr Blair's phrase for Israel's response to Palestine, totally disproportionate. So there's nothing for it. You simply have to smile and pass by. You overhear him mumble to his mate: "See? They like it."

No, we don't. We tolerate it, and then we grow older, and navvies' silence starts to feel like an insult. You can't win. The whole damn thing is an annoyance. I'm not usually in favour of top-down company directives about how staff should behave; they're generally trifling and unenforceable. English National Opera rightly attracted international ridicule when it tried to ban company members from calling one another "darling". Likewise, it was pretty daft when Bristol City Council (Bristol again – what a demonstrative lot they are) clamped down on the overuse of words like "my lover" and "pet" by their receptionists. Trying to control language is like trying to lash the wind. But stopping your building staff from sexist aggravation of potential customers – the Wimpey spokesman specified the on-site wolf-whistling was putting off female housebuyers – well, that's simply good business practice.

Brickies started their cat-calling antics in an age when working women weren't expected to progress further than the secretary pool; when they stood for being called "dolly birds"; when they needed a husband or father to sign for their mortgage. Now, we have something more like financial equality, and we go shopping for homes – which means that Mr Wimpey is sitting up and taking notice of how we might like to be treated as customers. The free market works for feminism, too.

Wimpey's builder-gagging initiative happened to occur in the same week that new rules – giving the European Equal Treatment Directive sharper teeth – came into force, making it more difficult for employers to ignore workers who complain about "any unwanted conduct related to their sex which violates their dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment".

Together, they will make life perceptibly better for women, whether they are working in a bar or buying a house. Most of the sexism that women encounter is unthinking, innocent and couched as fun. These directives should make men question their own behaviour; individual women won't have to be the party poopers any more. Now we can just get on with pointing and laughing silently at builders' bums.

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