When I was in Mykonos I was drinking with my three friends when we got talking to two Australian women, who I would place somewhere in their early thirties. One of them told us she worked in London as an insurance broker, and said she found the industry full of lecherous men. She said she would be at a works party (with plenty of alcohol) and men would start commenting on her breasts. Others would ask if they could “pet her later”. She said men frequently hit on her at or around work.
I’ll not be so crass as to physically describe the lady in question, but let’s just say we were all rather surprised by this. But we were surprised for another reason: this would never happen in the oil industry (at least, not in a western European country; it probably would in Russia and other places where sex tourists disguise themselves as engineers) and, according to my friend, nor would it happen in banking.
Even supposing HR policies covering sexual harassment didn’t exist, I’d not be making these sort of remarks. I’m not the most polite of people, what with having been encouraged to adapt to Parisian culture ‘n all, but I have enough class and manners not to make remarks about a colleague’s tits. I have quite a number of female colleagues and I can’t even imagine what they would say or do to me if I said something like that. They’re quite open to compliments which I know feminists complain about, but if you don’t know the difference between pleasant and lewd remarks by age forty then it’s probably best you keep your mouth shut.
I was thinking this over, contemplating whether the London insurance industry was the last bastion of rampant sexism in the corporate world, when something occurred to me about the same time the lady in question called me a pussy. She said this because I was considering quitting the drink early that evening; I’d been smashed the previous two nights and I had a flight the next day. I laughed because I don’t care if someone calls me a pussy, and she was only having fun. And the last person who suggested I couldn’t drink was a young chap at an Uzbek wedding whose uncle, who’d been plying me with vodka for the past four hours and was somewhat mystified as to why I was still alive, slapped him across the head for his gross inaccuracy as much as his insolence.
What I found interesting was that a woman would say that to a man she didn’t know at all. She’d also been happy to mention her breasts to four completely strange men. Now we were all having fun amid plenty of banter, but none of us had lowered the tone: that had come from her. I thought about which women I know who would come out with a remark like this, and came up short. I tried to imagine the women I work with speaking to anyone in this manner and couldn’t.
Now it could be that the London insurance industry is full of lecherous men who make lewd remarks in contravention of their companies’ code of conduct and corporate HR policies. Or it could be that when a woman acts like a “lad” and engages in alcohol-fuelled banter of an insulting or sexual nature – even in jest – it brings out the worst behaviour in the men around her. I’d hazard a guess that if any of my female colleagues had been at the same party, they’d have received no such remarks from anyone.