Two men, four knives, an empty office and me: How should employers safeguard female workers? Janie Lawrence talks to a woman who didn't consider her own safety until a terrifying attack

Janie Lawrence
Monday 19 July 1993 23:02
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LIKE MANY women, Joanna, a health care worker, does not go home on the stroke of 5.30pm. She had, until recently, given little thought to her personal safety at work. As she points out, women are warned to take safety precautions on the streets, but generally not off them.

But a terrifying incident three months ago has made Joanna, 27, acutely aware that this was a mistaken premise. 'The last client and my colleague had gone. I was about to put some make-up on, when I heard a noise. I thought it was the office cleaner who normally lets himself in. But the first thing I saw were two men in balaclavas with four knives; two short ones and two long and shiny.'

It was 7.50pm and Joanna's ordeal was to last for 90 minutes. She was backed into the room beside the safe, ordered to open it - although she did not know the combination - and forced to the ground while the men threatened to kill her.

'They were both acting like they'd watched some film,' recalls Joanna. 'One of them kept rubbing the two knives together theatrically and saying: 'They're beautiful knives, aren't they'. I knew he was scared because his breathing was almost asthmatic. I knew that they'd cut the phone wires.'

One of the men ransacked another room and found her purse. She gave them her cashpoint number without hesitating. 'I even described where the bank was and wrote the number out. I thought: 'Here we are in a dark building; nobody knows I'm here, are they planning to rape me?'

'I said to them: 'You've got to let me out of here, I won't tell anyone'.' Instead, they bundled Joanna into the toilet, covered her eyes and nose with parcel tape - 'My whole head was like a mummy' - bound her ankles, placed a mirror across her torso to hold her down and then tied a rope around her body, attaching her to the back of the toilet.

'Looking back,' says Joanna, 'it's really funny, I suppose, but before they went, one of them said: 'Thank you for everything, you've been a really lovely person'.'

According to Professor Bill Rees, a law lecturer at Guildhall University, employers are legally required to do everything that is 'reasonably practicable' to provide a 'safe system of work'. 'But I suspect that there would be a number of employers who feel vulnerable on this question,' he says.

Some companies provide taxis for their female staff if they are required to work late and employ full-time security guards. Other employers - either through ignorance or apathy - do not appear to consider female safety a high priority.

Claire Gillman, editor of Girl About Town, a small London-based magazine, believes that in many instances, finance is the bottom line. 'In most of the places I've worked, it's always been myself or another female manager that's brought up the subject. Men think in more general terms - the security of the property rather than the security of the personnel. I feel I've had to appeal to them on an emotional and moral level, because in financial or legal terms you haven't a leg to stand on.'

According to The Suzy Lamplugh Trust, employers who ignore safety issues are guided by false economy. 'The stresses and strains of real or perceived violence has a deleterious effect on work. If employees feel safe they tend to perform better,' a spokeswoman from the trust says.

The trust says women themselves must take responsibility for their safety at work, and follow general safety rules. It recommends that women should discuss matters that concern them with their employer. 'It's a two-way thing. The only way to make yourself feel better is to help yourself.'

But what if your employer will not discuss safety measures? Can you still reasonably be expected to work late? Should you refuse?

Professor Rees says many women, particularly when jobs are so scarce, will not risk jeopardising their employment. 'Today, employers hold most of the cards. When some employers would rather employ men who are prepared to rough it, most women don't want to be martyrs to a cause, with an employer saying they're a member of the awkward squad.'

After Joanna's experience, the clinic issued staff with panic buttons, which are worn around the neck and connected to a security firm. Joanna, however, still has flashbacks when her fear 'floods back', and has decided to seek counselling.

'The idea of being put through it again would be more than I could bear. Sometimes I think that they're waiting in a shop doorway ready to jump out. It's made me see that, as a woman, you don't realise how often you put yourself at risk.'

(Photograph omitted)

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