On her first day in a new job in the City, Kate (not her real name) didn’t know what to expect. Now a successful executive, she remembers being ready to roll with the punches, anything in order to get ahead.
What she didn’t expect was unrelenting sexual innuendo.
Whenever she wore red heels, one of her bosses joked about how she wasn’t “wearing knickers”.
In other meetings, senior male colleagues would say “while you’re down there”, when she was plugging in a computer.
By the time she quit, she says, she knew the reference to red shoes was a joke that was often made.
While Kate doesn’t mind a bit of “banter”, she says it was just too easy for lines to be blurred, especially within the tough culture of the City. What was meant as joking around with the boys, when you are the subject of the comments amount to sexual harassment.
She told the human resources team who handled her exit interview that this kind of office “humour” had driven her to attempt suicide.
While Kate’s experience was extreme, others agree with her, that “jokes” at work often get out of hand. In one survey, out of 20,000 people questioned, only 16% of British women were comfortable with sexual workplace humour.
On the other hand, 28% of men in the UK think it is okay to tell a dirty joke at work. And British men are happier to have a laugh over a crude joke, than men from many other parts of the world including Turkey, Mexico, Australia, Canada and the United States.
The difference between having a joke in the workplace or delaying it until “you are with your mates at the pub” can mean a lot to female co-workers, says Hillary Margolis a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“A lot of women feel they have to brush or laugh off a joke or they will be seen as too serious. But it can make women and those who identify as non-binary – and also people who are LGTBQ – feel disparaged,” she says.
Sexist jokes can also make men feel uncomfortable, especially if they are in a female dominated work environment.
More often than not, a joke is really meant to be a joke, Ms Margolis says, but sometimes people think sexual humour at work is a form of sexism, which makes women feel excluded.
“Sometimes these things can shut people down and make women feel like they have to hide who they truly are.
“Women will often laugh at these kind of jokes in the workplace because they don’t want to be perceived as being too emotional, sensitive or like they just can’t hack it,” says Ms Margolis.
Having to feel like they not free to be themselves, can put people on the back foot.
She adds: “Sometimes the impact is really underestimated”.
Kate’s upsetting experience was some years ago now. Bev Shah, who founded City Hive, a social network for workers in finance, says she does not know of anyone these days who would joke openly this way.
“These types of jokes are no longer acceptable in any public forum in the same way racial jokes no longer are. Once upon a time, racial jokes were on mainstream BBC prime time with characters like Alf Garnett in Til ‘Death Do Us Part making them acceptable,” said Ms Shah.
She says any comments of that sort should ring immediate alarm bells for employers, especially in the post #metoo era, and shouldn’t be tolerated.
The survey, by Ipsos MORI and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London asked people across the world in 27 countries.
The countries where workplace humour of a sexual nature was most acceptable were Belgium and China where 47% of men would joke or tell stories about sex.
Where as under 13% of men in Mexico, America and Canada agreed.
When it comes to speaking up, just like Kate will today, British women do not fear pushing back against inappropriate jokes. Over 80% of UK women surveyed said they would “tell off family or friends who make a sexist comment”.
And, British men also said they would stick up for women as well with 73% willing to take a stand against sexism.