When a damning survey exposing the sexual harassment of workers at Lloyd’s of London was finally published this week, it filled me with a grim sense of satisfaction. For a year after I graduated, I worked at a Lloyd’s insurer whose staff were also included in this survey in an attempt to quickly and easily save enough money to start freelance writing. It seemed like a financially savvy idea at first – but I soon reconsidered my choice. The culture of 1950s-style sexual harassment and objectification made that year one of the most difficult of my life.
So when I read that almost 500 people (mostly, I expect, women) had responded to the survey, conducted by the Banking Standards Board, to say they had suffered or observed sexual harassment in the last 12 months my reaction was relief – now, finally, something will have to change. Won't it?
The more I think about that, the less sure I am.
During that short year of my employment, I complained numerous times about the culture of sexism and was never taken seriously. One manager even came to my leaving drinks to tell me off for raising my concerns in a supposedly anonymous "Happiness at Work" survey. I later discovered the firm was related abysmally for sex and gender discrimination by all female employees who gave their views in that survey. That personal attack was years ago now, but the manager in question was so aggressive that I still remember the moment clearly. He said sexism had "gone too far the other way" and that I was trying to explain the working world to someone who’d been working since before I was born.
But years of university summers spent working in call centres and temporary jobs during college and university holidays gave me enough experience to know the environment I was now in was far from normal. And I was never convinced that the managers who had worked in the same toxic industry for decades were as worldly and experienced as they imagined themselves to be. Senior men snarled at me: "This is just the way the world works." Eventually I realised they were trying to convince themselves as much as me.
In my time in insurance, I witnessed and experienced three categories of daily sexism. The first was outright lewdness, with big office "personalities" (the biggest money makers) constantly making crass comments about female members of staff. Everyone admitted this was a bad look, but it was accepted that these prized assets got to play by a different set of rules to everyone else. Once a man put his hand down the back of my top in the middle of the office because the "label was sticking out", and then winked at me; the label was sewn into the left hand side seam.
Then there was the less sexualised female objectification. Most male members of staff seemed to participate in this culture. One man, then in his late thirties, arrived back from a team meeting and announced to the open plan office that he’d forgotten the name of the "really cute girl" with brown hair on the team, referring his 22-year-old colleague. This was not acknowledged to be inappropriate, but merely banter, despite the obvious workplace power imbalance between the two.
The final type of sexist bullying was men being deliberately and performatively rude to women at work whom they considered unattractive. I fell into this category for many of the younger men in the office. On one occasion, I was taken to Lloyd’s main building to shadow a man a few years older than me. All morning brokers would arrive at the box and ask, smirking, if the young lady was being taken for lunch. My minder would laugh. The joke of course being: who would take her to lunch? Ha ha! When lunchtime arrived the man in question wittily ran away from me to join his friends, while they all laughed.
Imagine that for a second: a grown man physically running away from one of his young, female colleagues, in the middle of an office, to make the point that she was ugly. Even after enduring six months of this type of weirdness, I was gobsmacked.
Gender balance is of course one reason why this culture persists: only 34 per cent of women of senior staff at Lloyd’s are female. And even among senior women there’s a prevailing attitude that everyone should "just get on with it" to get ahead. I would often be warned to stay away from certain men – one was known simply as The Leer – but never encouraged to report sexism more formally.
A Lloyd’s spokesperson said the survey figures are “stark and totally unacceptable”. Based on my experiences, however, I would be very surprised if the company considered them shocking.
The culture of sexism and misogyny is widely acknowledged, but a prevailing hostility towards women who complain means many (probably most) feel too scared to do so. After all, I only felt comfortable raising kicking up a fuss because I knew I had a different career plan altogether. Until that changes, nothing will.
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