Wonderbras in the workplace

What do women talk about at the office? A sexual harassment case this week prompted Emma Daly to listen in to some very personal conversations
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The Independent Online
''Do you remember that time after a meeting when we began to discuss sex after pregnancy?" said the boss, with a laugh. She is a woman and so were her two colleagues. After a wary-ish start, the three shared, in detail and with some gusto, the lack of sex in their lives after giving birth - exhaustion, pain and so on.

The story came out in a chat about the latest and most bizarre sexual harassment allegations to hit the press - the accusation by Joanna Poole, 22, that her life was made miserable by the repeated comments of Christine Butland, 26. "Christine seemed to take pleasure in embarrassing me in that way by making comments about my breasts," Ms Poole told an industrial tribunal.

"She used to say she wished she had bigger breasts and that she wished she could lose weight. She also wanted to get her hair cut short like mine. She would make comments about my legs and said she wished she had my figure."

We will never know Ms Butland's version of events, as the case was settled out of court following the testimony of a third colleague, who described the remarks as "just compliments, really".

What is praise to one is humiliation to another, and men have long used sexual comments to remind women of a lesser status as objects. But the reaction in my office - regardless of the truth of Ms Poole's allegations - was one of surprise. For most of the women at the Independent, at least, are quite used to exchanging personal comments and, at times, intimate emotional details. And this seems to hold good for many working women.

Marie, 28, Ruth, 25, and Stephanie 24, work for an American investment bank and have become close friends. Ruth thinks the details of the Poole case "sound strange", because she and her friends agree they would not discuss their sex lives openly at work - except with three or four or five colleagues.

But would they ask a new-comer if she was married or had a boyfriend? "That would be the first question I'd ask,'' replies Stephanie. "And she'd find out all the details,'' adds Marie. This doesn't hold true, they feel, for male colleagues. "Often, you notice that the new guys are sitting on their own in the canteen for a long time, whereas we'd invite a new girl out for lunch immediately,'' Ruth says.

Sophie, who works in advertising, was lunching yesterday with Vanessa - her former boss and now a friend. She was lucky, perhaps. Vanessa told me about a "horrific" experience with a female boss. "She was not supportive at all and saw me as a threat and really pushed me... we didn't get on at all, and that was potentially more destructive,'' she said, identifying a notorious bitch-in-the-manger trait. "I think her problem may have been that she had to fight so hard for it and she thought it was too easy for me.''

So far, so good for the right-wing tabloids. But Vanessa continues: "In fact, we've come through and it's been rewarding because she's set such high standards and I've come through and I've actively chosen to stay with her. She treats me much better now. We're actually quite similar and that's probably why we clashed.''

I once worked with a woman who was unpopular because she could be (and often was) a real bitch. But as one of the (few) other women, I came to see (and hear) how unhappy she was, and how she took this out on others. I did not seek her confidences, but I did not betray them.

Women - aside from the Thatcher/Queen Bee model who loathes other women and who is said to be on her way out now - tend to work in a more co-operative, collaborative atmosphere, in which the hierarchy is less evident and in which credit is assigned where it is due.

"It is routine,'' a female friend said with resignation, "to hear male bosses take credit for other people's ideas, sometimes almost unconsciously. They say 'I', meaning 'I, the department'. Female bosses are far more likely to say 'we', and to praise something to a superior as 'Jane's idea', for example.''

Professionals agree. Rosalind Miles, who writes on careers for Cosmopolitan, says women model work on the family, while men adopt hierarchical, militaristic structures. Consequently, women tend to show more concern for colleagues and subordinates, but may also find it difficult to discipline them.

Cary Cooper, professor of occupational psychology, says women make much better managers than men. "They tend to be much more people-oriented; they know how to manage resistance to change because they understand the fears involved,'' he said. "Women do talk in the workplace about personal issues... There is no way men talk about having a sexual problem in their marriage, or having a bad marriage.''

Not all women feel the same, of course. One of my colleagues believes that any personal comment is inappropriate at work - but those of us who heard her say that will know, from now on, not to talk to her about our love-lives or her clothes. Harassment is all about context and conviction: a woman who deliberately, and despite evident embarrassment, spoke to another about her sex-life or her body would clearly be guilty of more than bad social skills.

But for most women, "personal" comments are a norm, in work as with their friends, family and acquaintances. "People are actually complimentary at work,'' said Sophie. It's true, and such comments among women are often an ice-breaker: the woman you have never met tells you she likes your hair, so you start to chat.

Perhaps we work in a more liberal atmosphere than most, but the Independent office file of quotes saved for posterity includes the following: "Kathy came up and said, 'These Wonderbras are great. You should get one.' I told her: 'Get lost, I'm wearing one.' '' Then there was the glamorous but motherly 50-something who said: "There are some very fine bosoms on this floor - have you noticed?''

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