Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Blowing the whistle could mean blowing your career

Lord Rennard
Lord Rennard

As alleged nicknames for Lord Rennard go, 'the human octopus' – if that's indeed true – has a certain zing. It's quite an image.

Over the decades, I've been acquainted with a few truly spectacular human octopuses. Not Rennard. Never had the joy. No, other ones.

Those men who speak all directives to the ears on one's chest. The presenters famed for going through gullible work experience teenagers like knives through warm butter. The men never safe to be the last one with in a taxi.

Or simply those with a long history of female colleagues who've felt vaguely creeped out by their conversation topics.

Only the other day, I swore to my friends I would never work on a project again because a senior colleague makes me want to wire-wool then steam-clean my epidermis after four short minutes across a business lunch table.

Just talking about this annoys many males. A lot of men do not understand – either genuinely or pig-headedly – the actual sense of being sexually harassed. Of course, with some irony, if a vehemently straight man has at one point in his life found himself being hit on by an assertive gay man, then – behold – this will be a startling anecdote pivoting around power and fear, they will recount – for ever expecting shocked, sympathetic gasps.

In the meantime, women encounter this feeling several times a year and just let it wash over them like waves. Oh, those human octopuses. Oh it's never their fault really, is it?

And have I ever blown the whistle on a wobbly tentacle on my bum along the way? Did I march to a higher power and issue a formal complaint, like some of Rennard's colleagues? Did I hell.

I did what women have done for centuries: I slagged them off to my friends, seethed about a male-heavy workplace, which allows this to happen, and got on with my job.

By no coincidence, I'm still working. Among my friends, we have a very gallows-humour shorthand term for work letches, which is: "He's a bit rapey".

"Oh God, don't work with so and so," we say, rolling our eyes: "He's a bit rapey." Now "rape" and "jokes" are a tough one to marry, or excuse, but in this case it's not quite a joke.

It's the sum of our darkest fears, flipped into a daft phrase to lighten the truth, in a man's world, where our defence is black humour and camaraderie.

And I applaud all women with the iron will to blow the whistle on a genuine human octopus, as typically this results in blowing one's career.

Because from then on, you're 'that' woman. Who wants to be the jelly-elbowed junior crying in HR? And, crucially, if an office letch has any degree of seniority, he'll no doubt have 10, or 15, people – including many women – in his retinue whose livelihoods rely on him.

Obviously, many men will comment on this piece of writing by triumphantly pointing out that they have spotted the outline of my chest in my by-line picture, which negates anything I have to say about, well, anything, ever.

Others will suggest a monster like me should be flattered by sexual harassment and, for good measure, they'd never molest me anyhow.

Curiously, that's just part of my modern-day job spec. But, more relevantly, this is the sort of scrutiny whistleblowers face whenever they purse their lips – remove that tentacle from their thigh – and blow. Good luck, girls. You'll need it.

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