Recently, on my way out of work, I needed to pass on some information to a male colleague. His desk was in a corner, facing away from the room, and he was listening to something through headphones so he couldn’t hear me calling his name. After a few attempts, I reached out and touched his shoulder. In slow motion I watched my own hand descend and rest on his jumper, realising too late that this constituted unwanted physical contact. In a split second that felt like a lifetime, I imagined, processed and mentally suffered approximately one thousand horrifying implications of my action, including losing my job, being humiliatingly featured on BBC Newsnight and going to prison.
My colleague turned round and our ensuing conversation left me feeling reassured that there would be no forthcoming backlash. He didn’t perceive my moment of human error as predatory in any way, and we moved on. But as the recent #MeToo campaign has shown, too often these actions aren’t the result of human error. Too often, we each have a story to share where the intentions weren’t so innocent, and it can leave you feeling despondent at the thought of even entering another office environment again.
As a woman who has worked in offices for most of 27 years, I have tried to forget a few of my own encounters that I could add to the recent clarion call against harassment of women in the workplace. On occasion I have experienced approaches from men that made me feel uncomfortable and even, unfathomably, ashamed. I shouldn’t have had to experience any of it. I sympathise with every woman who has felt the humiliating sting of being harassed at work. Any woman who is courageous enough to confront this should be listened to and treated with respect.
But equally, I’d hope each man on the end of an accusation would be given a chance to be listened to. As my own actions with my male colleague revealed, it’s easy for an innocent mistake to be misconstrued as something else entirely. We are fortunate to live under a justice system which upholds our innocence unless we’re proven guilty. This means that, before an allegation becomes a fact and brings down a reputation, a career or a life, we’re entitled to a fair hearing. If an allegation was made about our husband or partner, our son, our brother, our father or our friend, wouldn’t we want a fair hearing for them?
The #MeToo campaign has revealed a widespread problem of everyday harassment towards women, but that doesn’t mean we have to feel negative and downhearted about the entire male population. And while I’m not downplaying those moments in the workplace that I’ve felt harassed or uncomfortable, it also occurs to me how many men have helped me in my career over these 27 years – and we should shine a light on those moments too.
I.T. was a male-dominated profession when I started my first programming job in 1990, fresh from a COBOL course. The first men I worked with taught me how to apply what I’d learned in college, and become competent in a demanding and responsible profession. Under their patient instruction, I became a confident contributor to the systems of the bank I worked for. Later, when I did the same for trainee programmers who joined the team, I realised the sacrifice of time this had been for those male colleagues. I’m grateful to them. What they taught me enabled me to earn a living for the 16 years I was in the industry.
My first manager in that same job called me in for an informal but strongly-worded reprimand when I suffered from youthful complacency and slipped in to some sloppy, time-wasting work patterns. It seems a strange thing to be grateful for – I certainly didn’t enjoy that little chat – but it sharpened my work ethic in a way that still guides me today. I appreciate that he bothered enough to pull me up on sub-standard behaviour, and allowed me space to prove myself again afterwards.
In the job I had when I moved to the UK, a female manager bullied me relentlessly. The effects of being bullied were devastating to my mental wellbeing, and the subtle nature of what she was doing meant that it was hard to prove what was going on, and I received no help from a perplexed HR department who couldn’t quite believe what I was saying. It was a male colleague who eventually initiated and accompanied me to a meeting with HR, and shed some vital light that released me from ever having to work for her again. He risked his own longstanding friendship with her to do that, but saved me in doing so.
When I left I.T. a male director gave me my first opportunity in a communications department. I had no communications experience, but he was fair enough to see what skills I could transfer to the role. Another man then took time to teach me how to edit the many articles and newsletters that the department created. I learned so much from him that I still use today. It was yet another man who gave me the opportunity to write copy for the leaflets we produced. In developing that skill, I was able to apply for a job which required copywriting experience.
A year ago I was made redundant. It was a man who offered me my next contract and, despite having no prior working relationship with me, trusted me to fulfil my role predominantly from home, as the offices were too far for me to commute to regularly. Early on we identified I lacked experience on a platform they used. With the trauma of redundancy still fresh, my self-confidence waned. He patiently made provision for me come in to the office to be trained. I’m grateful to him for persevering with me so new to the role, and I’m grateful to the colleague who gave me a day of his (busy) time to teach me. Both enabled me to continue to earn a living.
As my career has spanned nearly three decades, it’s not possible in this space to mention every person whose help and cooperation I’ve benefitted from. There have been many more good men and women I’m grateful to have worked with. But it was a restorative thought process to go through; to take a moment to think back and acknowledge the good ones. I encourage anyone to try it. You shouldn’t brush your negative experiences under the carpet, but don’t let those experiences negate the many positive ones you’ve had in your life. Acknowledge the good ones, and maybe this world will feel like a slightly nicer place after all.
Emma Howden is a mum, sister, daughter and friend. She is a communicator at heart, believing understanding gained through clear communicating and listening can usually go a long way to help most relationships stay healthy. In a previous century she started her work life as a mainframe computer programmer, but now is loving a second career in communications, which has taken her to roles at a number of great charities. She has a strong-willed cat who regularly challenges her authority at home, and two teenage sons who make her laugh often and help keep her ideas and outlooks fresh.