“Recently I was working out in the gym at work and two male colleagues were standing behind me clearly talking about me. One said ‘she’s such a waste of a woman’ referring to the fact I am in a committed relationship with a woman. I thought ‘just because I chose not to have sex with you, a man, I am a waste of a woman?’ It made me feel really uncomfortable so I finished my workout halfway through. When I was leaving the gym one of the men asked me ‘is it because you’ve never had a real man?’ He laughed and then they both wolf-whistled at me. I haven’t been back to the work gym since.”
This isn’t the only incident of sexual harassment Helen has experienced at work. She said: “When I was preparing for my wedding a few years ago one of my male colleagues asked if we were both going to wear a dress. I said that we were, and he made comments that we were ‘lipstick lesbians’ and were ‘bang tidy’. Another colleague told him that was unacceptable behaviour but he just laughed and said he was joking. It got me thinking, ‘I would never pass comment on your sexuality, what your wife or husband looked like, so why is it acceptable you do this to me? It’s not’.
“And then another time a male colleague who knew I had a female partner said ‘so which one’s the man? referring to who is more dominant sexually. I humoured this at the time, by saying ‘that is a ridiculous comment, that is like asking which chopstick is the fork?’ Nonetheless, it was hurtful’’
And sadly the harassment Helen has experienced hasn’t only been verbal: “I returned home early from a work Christmas night out because someone I worked with asked to see a picture of my partner. I showed him my Facebook profile picture, and he said: ‘I would pay £100 quid to watch you two.’ I was really upset and he said: ‘Don’t be touchy’ and he slapped my bum as I walked off.”
Helen thinks because she and her wife are both feminine and don’t fit the stereotype of what people expect lesbians to be like she draws extra curiosity at work. She said: “If I had a penny for every time someone asked me if I was a lesbian because I ‘had not had a real man’ then I would be so rich I’d never have to work again.”
In Helen’s experience the harassment has always come from a male colleague – usually one in a senior position. She hasn’t reported it for a number of reasons.
She told the TUC:
I just want to come into work and do my job. I feel angry in the moment the harassment is happening, but then I try and forget it.
"It happens so often I’d be reporting someone so regularly I don’t know how my employers would deal with it. And I suppose I’ve learned to accept this behaviour as part of our culture and our society, because it doesn’t just happen at work.”
Helen also has concerns about what reporting sexual harassment would mean for her at work. She said: “I worry what it might do for my reputation and my chances of career progression to report these incidents. I’m quite senior here and I don’t want to be labelled for playing ‘the gay card’.”
The harassment has had a big impact on Helen at work. She said: “It affects my confidence day in day out. I’m paranoid that people are looking at me and thinking ‘that’s the woman with the fit wife or she’s a lesbian you know’. I want to go into work and be Helen the really great psychologist, not Helen the lesbian. My sexuality doesn’t define who I am as a person. For me it’s irrelevant, especially at work. It feels like because of my sexuality people feel free to say whatever they want about me – even when they don’t know me. It makes you paranoid.”
Helen thinks employers need to do more to stamp out sexual harassment at work. She would like to see workshops and posters about sexual harassment to educate the workforce – both those who are the perpetrators of sexual harassment, but also the victims.
She said: “Until I spoke to you about this I wouldn’t have thought what was happening to me was sexual harassment. I know what’s happening is harassment. And I know that it’s about my sexuality. But I don’t think people are aware of what’s acceptable and what isn’t. I don’t think people generally want to be harmful. It’s all seen as ‘banter’ and has almost become part of an accepted culture, making it difficult to challenge and prevent. For me, I humour it to ‘get by’ but wish that it didn’t happen in the first place.”