Just how safe is it for women at work?
Is Your Workplace Like Home Away From Home?
If You’re A Woman – Not Likely
You’ve heard the saying, “life is what you make of it”, right? Well, while this may be intended to help people feel empowered and capable of changing reality through their own efforts, it can also oversimplify how much is within your control – especially if you’re a woman in the workplace.
Since women joined the workforce following second wave feminism, women and men have faced an enormously complex dynamic that had never existed before. Remember – there were no rules, guidelines, or experts to help men and women navigate this new territory, and even in 2021, women are still experiencing challenges and dangers just because of gender.
If Don Draper’s workplace in Mad Men is any indication, it’s clear that women transitioning into the workplace didn’t involve any significant changes to the environment. If anything, women were simply added as the spectators of men’s activities. For the most part, workspaces continued to cater to male needs and desires, and much of the disturbing treatment women experience in the show is still happening today.
Sarah Everard’s shocking story is a case in point. Since this event, more and more women have stepped forward with their own tales of intimidation, harassment, and abuse while on the job. As someone who has experienced this as well, I wanted to share my story with you in the hopes that it might help women open up while also starting a conversation around how we can keep women safe at work.
The Risks of Working in Construction
I work in construction – a male-dominated field. What makes it risky, especially if you’re a woman, is the fact that men with criminal records are employed – and we also lack a good screening process. I suppose they just figure that men can handle other men if it comes to that, but if you’re a woman, it’s not so simple. During the last 16 years of working in construction, I’ve worked with two murderers, three men who were found guilty of sexual harassment, many GBH offenders, as well as some drug dealers and alcoholics.
I do believe that people can turn their lives around and that they deserve the chance to do so. However, my employer didn’t even play open cards and make me aware of these men’s backgrounds so that I could decide for myself whether it was a risk I was willing to take. As it turns out, these men told me about their past actions, often expressing pride in doing so.
This first incident took place when I acted as a source of support for a male colleague who needed comfort while he was divorcing his wife. He always initiated these conversations and, following one specific chat in my remote office, he pulled his chair very close to mine, saying that he needed to move on with someone younger. My hackles immediately rose as I knew better than to have a man I barely know this close to me in a private space. My colleague stood up and shut the door, at which point I was already getting myself into defensive mode.
Luckily, a more senior member of staff saw the door being shut and immediately stormed in to kick the man out of my office. He told him off in no uncertain terms, making it clear he was never to come into my office again, let alone shut the door with only the two of us present.
The second incident took place when I was working on a remote job in land. I received word that a colleague had just been released from prison after 15 years for attempted murder. One day, I happened to be alone with him, and he commented that my new engagement ring looked expensive. He grabbed my arm without consent to look at it more closely. Luckily, just at that moment, a group of workers arrived by van. I pulled my arm away and, from then on, always made sure I kept my distance from him.
How To Make Women Feel Safe At Work
There are many other times I’ve felt uneasy or unsafe, but there seems to be no point in saying anything. We know that without a significant shift in the environment that receives support from men and women, there won’t be enough of an incentive to address it.
But, according to 2021 statistics from the US, the problems women face in the workplace are not going away:
- 69% of women have been sexually harassed in a professional setting
- 72% of workplace sexual harassment victims don’t report what happened to them
- 81% of women have experienced some sort of sexual harassment throughout their lives
- 72% of sexual harassment victims were harassed by someone more senior than them in the organization
Image used for illustrative purpose. Abused young woman being silenced by her abuser.
Given all these cases that occur every day, the time has come for women and men to proactively consider how workplaces can be made safer for women. The company culture needs to inculcate specific values and norms of conduct that will give women the means to communicate what is happening to them as well as ways to address it.
In other words, we need to change people’s mindsets. This is, perhaps, where we can start:
- Make People Aware – The company needs to take responsibility for making employees – male and female – aware of the issues at stake and how to handle them so that everyone feels safe.
- Implement A Zero-Tolerance Policy – A rule is only as good as how it’s punished since people don’t respect rules that aren’t actually enforced.
- Create An Open Communication Platform – Women and men need to have open spaces where they can talk honestly about interactions between them.
- Establish An Investigation Committee – To show employees that the company is taking these issues seriously, it’s important to establish an impartial body that can thoroughly investigate and make judgments about the really serious, complex cases.
- Provide Support For Women – Some women will need more focused support in developing the skills they need to protect themselves. This may include therapy, life-coaching, or self-defence classes.
Do you have any other suggestions for how women can be protected in the workplace?