In speaking to many young Anglo Saxon women today here in Australia, I get a feeling that they don’t feel discriminated against at all. In fact, sometimes I have been treated with disdain for suggesting that women are still not treated equally in the workforce. I have had comments like “I (said with an emphasis on the i), haven’t experienced sexual harassment or discrimination at work, it’s just not a thing that happens in my industry“, or “some women might experience a lack of equality in the workplace, but that is not my experience“. Interesting, that the young women that responded where highly educated, good-looking, articulate women working in management roles in classically female roles, like Marketing and PR., yet, conversely, the most interest in this Changing Women’s Forum comes from countries where women often struggle to gain an education or any sort of equality in the workforce.
Although many young women in countries like Australia think that they are equal, I have my doubts. You only have to look at the lack of women represented on boards to know that all is not well. Like many older women who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s at the height of consumerism and sexual harassment, I worry that younger women have forgotten – or are just ignoring where we have come from only 30-40 years ago where we struggled to advance equality for women, so I have decided to write these “stories from the past” which are from my experience as a young women in the workforce.
I wonder if many women today have forgotten why we have sexual harassment laws in place in Australia. I don’t think that as women, we tell the stories of how it was 20-30 years or more ago and how it really was in the workplace for women. Maybe it’s like child-birth; we don’t really tell the truth about what it will be like.
So here is my story.
When I was about twenty-six (26) years old, I had already been married for the last seven years and had a young baby, who was only two. We had just moved back to Sydney from the country and I got a job working for a national transport company in Sydney’s inner suburbs. I worked as a “pickup” operator, taking the calls from customers who wanted their parcels picked up by one of the drivers. After a while doing this, I progressed to Customer Service where as a Clerk we worked to find missing parcels for people from across Australia. I really enjoyed my job, and sat with a small group of women in the centre of the busy office where outside the many trucks would be unloading on the dock. During this time, as a young woman in a male dominated industry, I both experienced and saw what we now know as “sexual harassment” in the workplace. This was the early 1980’s and men didn’t even consider that a female would not welcome their advances. So harassment was not a term that people understood or even acknowledged.
As women, we were relegated to “admin” roles like secretaries, receptionists, clerks and tea ladies, and even as I write these titles the spell checker is telling me that I have used a “bias term”, so some things have changed. We certainly were not expected to become a manager – you could be a supervisor but this was usually only if you were supervising other women – it was rare to see a woman in charge or in a leadership position. As young married women we were often made to feel guilty that we had “left” our children with someone else whilst we worked outside the home and that our job would never be as important as our husbands. Remember this is the late 1970’s, early 1980’s that I am talking about – not the 1940’s.
I saw very experienced women training young men in management and in many cases these young men would become their manager of the women who had trained them only to then treat that women like an idiot. These women would be asked to hand down all their knowledge and experience to these young men who were often arrogant and less than gracious to their more experienced teacher. Often when these young men did reach manager status at very young ages, they then treated their trainer, now their subordinate, very badly. I saw most of these older experienced women take this treatment without complaining, but it had an effect on me that has stayed with me ever since. It was no surprise that many women accepted this treatment – for many it would have been no different at home when most women who worked outside the home also did the majority of the housework as well.
As a “pickup” operator, we would have customers ringing up to find out where their pick up truck was so we would need to get an ETA (estimated time of arrival) from the radio room. To do this, we would write the customer’s pickup information on one of the pickup cards and send it down the little conveyor belt in front of us to the radio room on the other side of the glass. Here a radio operator would call the drivers and allocate jobs to the correct driver over the two-way radio system. To know which driver, you first needed to know who did what area and what area was closest to the address of the pickup customer to call the correct driver. You also needed to know the current and planned jobs for each driver so that they didn’t waste time retracing their paths and going backwards and forwards too much. This would make the burly truck drivers extremely annoyed and sometimes they would come into the radio room from the dock in the afternoons and have a go at the radio operators. As you needed to deal with “tough” drivers and understand locations, this job was always done by a man as women were just “too soft” to deal with these men with any authority, and of course, everyone knew that women had no idea about directions or maps! There was always a lot of swearing and yelling coming from the radio room and sometimes we as pickup girls would have to go into the radio room to find out what the delay was. I always loved going into the radio room – it was way more interesting than sitting with a bunch of women answering the phone all day that’s for sure and because of this, I got to know a lot about the way the radio worked. The operators would collect the little pickup cards as they came off the conveyor belt and sort them into areas that matched the driver’s areas. Then the radio operator would “call” the driver over the radio, usually a number of them at once and using a knee control for the radio that could start and stop very quickly. The calls would be like;
Then car 61 might answer, with “61”. The operator would give the job out over the radio in a form of shorthand – but it was easy to understand. A couple of times I actually filled in for a male operator while they were away at the toilet or out on the dock for some reason. Often when we would walk past one of the male operators chairs, or when we would try to get through the door some of the men would stand close to us, often rubbing up against us as we tried to do our job. It was very common for our male Manager to stand behind our chairs and rub himself up against our back or our arms whilst we were taking calls from customers.
On one occasion, the very good-looking young manager in training that I spoke of earlier in this post decided that he was going to block my way through the corridor to the ladies toilet. “Come on”, he said “just give me a kiss”. After a few of these incidents of pushing past him, one day when he blocked my way, I said “Sure“, whilst squashed up against the wall “I am sure that your new young bride will just love this kiss” and I planted a ruby-red lipsticked kiss mark onto his clean white shirt collar. He had to rush out and buy a new shirt before going home, but it taught him to keep away from me in future. Amazing, since he was younger than me by a few years, and I knew his wife well, but thought that now that he was a Manager he could do what he wanted.
It was also a daily occurrence to walk out onto the dock where all the trucks where to find a parcel and be “wolf whistled” by many of the men. You would have to try to do your work, maybe talk to these guys while others were shouting out rude (and often offensive) remarks for other men about what they would do with you if they were alone with you. In a group situation this could be scary and for many women, extremely frightening. Many of the women that I worked with just didn’t want to go outside because the comments made them feel so uncomfortable. As a young women reading this today, you might think that a “wolf whistle” or two is something that is great and shows you have what it takes to attract a man, but I can tell you that this is not the case because this type of male behaviour only objectifies a woman and doesn’t appreciate her wholeness as a woman. It is primal, sexual and can get very nasty. It didn’t worry me too much as I would go up to these men and gently say something to them like “that is so nice that you think I look good today, but I would appreciate it so much more if you would just say hello and say something like, gee you look nice today Susanne“. It took guts to do this, but it made a huge difference to my relationship with many of these men and a huge difference to my working environment. Very soon, these men learned to say “hello Susanne” or “hello love, you look nice today” instead of the lude comments they were so used to doing before. It made a much more comfortable environment for all of us to work in as they were no longer under pressure to “perform” in front of the other men. My experience was pretty mild by comparison to some women who pushed into the open truck trays and groped or assaulted as the trucks parked with their open back doors into the dock. This was acceptable behaviour; remember this was less than 30 years ago! It was assumed that you “were asking for it”, and was not seen as assault or harassment – it was just the way that men behaved. It was common for men to restrain you or hold onto you while that spoke to you – today that would be assault.
My most confronting moment came when I wanted to work in the radio room as a Radio Operator and went to speak to the department manager about applying for the job. He sat in a large glass walled office in the middle of the floor so had full view of all and we had the full view of what went on in his office. Unfortunately, he was a bully and would often get people into his office and yell at them, leaving them embarrassed in full view of everyone through the glass walls. I wasn’t scared of much then and am not scared of much now, so I was prepared. Of course he brought up all the usual reasons why women couldn’t do the job, no authority, no idea how to use the radio, etc but I had already done this work well so he couldn’t justify this as a reason. Without a good excuse, he decided that he could give me a go on one condition and that condition was that I slept with him. Hmmm, I thought, Susanne you need to use whatever tools you have at your disposal to get this job, so….I repeated what he said at the top of my voice so that everyone in the office could hear me. “So you have just said that I can have the job as long as I sleep with you, that’s correct?” He went red in the face and didn’t know what to do – he just sat in his chair holding the arm rests so tight I could see the whiteness of his knuckles. By this time everyone was watching us and before he could answer, I grabbed a piece of paper and pen from his desk and wrote as I again spoke loudly: “SO if that is the only way that I can have the job, here is my IOU (promissory note) for the sleeping with you part, just remember you never said WHEN I would have to sleep with you, so I have written that it is at my time. Ok, so now I have the job, when can I start?”. He didn’t know what to say or what to do. At the time, I was only a tiny person of 5 foot 2″ and weighting in at about 50 kilo’s, but I knew what was right and I was not going to take a backward step.
I got the job and did it well as so became the first female radio operator for that company. A big step. Sexual harassment in the workplace was very real in those days and the laws that are in place today to protect people from this sort of harassment exist now for a reason. These laws were hard-fought and necessary. Many people’s lives were badly affected having to work in these situations, constantly under the threat of something happening to them. Sexual harassment is alive and well today. We have laws to protect us, but don’t forget why we have them just because you are OK doesn’t mean that everyone is and that someone is not being victimized or denied equality in the workforce because of this type of harassment.
Sexual harassment is real and we need to be watchful that we don’t become complacent just because you don’t have any problem in your working experience.
Other references and articles on Sexual Harassment;
Australian Human Rights Commission – What is Sexual Harassment
*****Definition: Wikipedia – Sexual Harassment in the office
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