Mentoring a Young Woman Opened My Eyes

Gentlemen, it’s worse than you think

Photo by Nic Low on Unsplash

It was when she burst into tears at one of our meet ups I perceptively realised that Rose* could use a good listen.

There were feelings of a lack of worth, though she was a more useful and impressive individual than me at her age. There was thwarted ambition as she battled to influence her peer group in a corporate setting. And oh yeah, she was having a bad day because sometimes that just happens and there was that guy last week who had followed her and shouted foul things at her on the street.

What.

Being a young person in the corporate world can be scary. Earning a crust in a culture you are battling to fit into is hard work regardless of gender, hence the company’s mentoring programme. But young women have that extra piece of shit to deal with.

You know what I am talking about.

Sexual harassment.

I thought it might just be Rose’s experience — these streets seem pretty safe to me — so I asked around. And guess what, chaps? (Ladies, don’t ruin the surprise.) Every female friend and colleague across various industries had a story: the catcalls and harassment walking down the street minding her own business. The inappropriate comments. The ‘handsy’ boss. The tacit condoning of creepy behaviour from friends, colleagues, and corporations. The heart-stopping fear when, walking home alone at night, she became aware of a man not just on the same street, but following her.

This was not just Rose’s experience. This was epidemic. Let’s not even talk about the outliers, the boyfriend with a restraining order. Because everyone — without exception — had had these smaller incidents to deal with or worry about.

Growing up I knew fine about homophobia, racism and religious intolerance. Jokes on those subjects were meat and drink when I was a boy. And none of these were acceptable any more to people in my circle. But this? It changed my world.

Because this is the same world that I live in. I haven’t seen incidents of sexual harassment. I haven’t been subject to them. Nobody talked to me about it. Where have you been the last couple of years? you might ask. Well, I don’t do social media, I don’t read the news, and it is not like guys go round harassing women in front of me. Until I my opened my eyes and ears to it I hadn’t noticed a problem.

Well, mentoring Rose ripped that screen right back. It took her bravery in speaking out to change the way I saw the world.

And when a male colleague in a bar pointed to a woman with a black eye and said “must have burned her boyfriends dinner!” that was when I really got it. That was when I realised that this is not a corporate mentoring issue. This is not an issue for women.

Ladies, you may retire now. The boys and I are going to have a chat.

Because right now, gentlemen, you’re going to discover one easy thing that you can do about this.

Maybe you, personally, would not harass a woman. That’s beside the point. Because there is something you are doing that allows it to happen. Can you guess what it is?

Let’s look at it from our point of view. For as long as there have been men there has been banter. And men who would never ever think of feeling a woman up, or making inappropriate remarks to her face, or persistently pestering her, might still crack jokes about wives, girlfriends, mothers-in-law, women in the street, in bars, at work, everywhere.

And that’s what we are here about. See that locker room banter? See how you would say those things to me but not to a woman? You know why, and it’s not because of PC gone mad, or because you might get a disciplinary. It’s because deep down, you know it’s not right. These jokes are sexual harassment’s gateway drug. Laugh, and you’ve just created the environment which gives the pests permission. Humour is powerful: it can puncture pomposity, but it can also embolden hate. So this guys, is your mission. Do one small thing that will change the entire relation between the sexes for the better.

  1. When you hear a joke that attacks or belittles women, don’t laugh.

That’s all.

Please don’t misunderstand, we’re not talking comments about a woman’s character or politics or how her children act in public or musical taste (I mean come on, Ed Sheeran?), just anything that attacks her simply for being a woman. Imagine a world where women can walk down the street in safety. A world where she can walk into a room full of men and not have those little voices in the back of her head as we all turn to stare at her. Can you imagine that world? It is the world where you and I don’t make certain jokes.

So when some bloke next asks me why women have smaller feet?

I will be thinking about Rose.

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* A pseudonym