By a London Underground worker
Sexist banter is almost commonplace in my job as a London Underground station assistant.
For the last five years I have challenged individual comments, but not really known how to tackle the underlying issue. I have even felt unconfident of how important the issue is. Thanks to a survey on workplace sexism, produced by my union, the RMT, challenging sexism has started to get easier.
Recent examples of sexist banter include my male colleagues commenting on women’s bodies: “Look at it”, “Look at that thing over there”. Also, discussing my prospects of promotion to the grade of supervisor (supervisors wear white shirts), one colleague complimented me: “I can imagine you in a white shirt”. My supervisor chipped in: “I can imagine you without any shirt on”.
These comments make me feel uncomfortable, out of place in a male-dominated workplace. Comments about my looks and sexual references to my body undermine my confidence in my ability to do my job. It is hard to take yourself seriously when your superiors patronise and sexualise you.
But despite feeling uncomfortable for a long time, I haven’t done anything about it because I simply didn’t know what to do.
I knew about the workplace sexual harassment policy; one of our comrades was central to introducing it when she took LU to industrial tribunal for sexual harassment over 10 years ago. But the attitudes are so widespread I felt I couldn’t use the harassment policy against 99% of my male colleagues. The prospect of bringing disciplinary action against people also made me nervous.
I decided that I wanted a survey of other women in my industry to see if they shared my experiences; on the back of that, I wanted a political campaign against sexist attitudes, rather than disciplinary action against individuals.
So nearly two years ago I passed a motion through my RMT branch, which went to the RMT women’s conference and then to the AGM. It asked for a survey to be followed by a workplace campaign.
The survey was published in the summer and I took copies into work. We had talked about these issues before. But it had always seemed possible that this was “all in our heads” or that we were “too sensitive”.
Carrying a piece of paper, entitled “sexism at work”, with a union logo across the top, helped give us the confidence to understand that what we were experiencing was a real problem, not just a something imagined by our over-sensitive female brains.
It was like a lid had been lifted. One young colleague and I found we had shared the exact same experience of a male supervisor’s foul innuendo. We were able to plan together what we would say the next time he did it, each gaining confidence from the other’s determination to stop it.
The RMT has had over 100 responses to the survey. A small proportion of the union’s members, but enough that the union cannot deny the existence of sexism in our industry. We will have to pressure them to do it, but if the union runs a serious campaign, hopefully sexist attitudes will start to be challenged around our industry for the first time.
In my case, I decided a political campaign was needed against sexism, not just to help women’s confidence but to establish these attitudes as intolerable in men’s minds too. But I would support any woman who wanted to use sexual harassment policies to challenge unwanted sexual attention. Campaigns like this will hopefully encourage women to stand up for themselves in every sense.
It is up to us how we do it, but as feminists and activists in the workers’ movement, this needs to be a priority.
This is part of a project we’ve started – collecting interviews and comments about people’s experiences of sexism in the workplace and labour movement. Read more, or find out how to contribute – we welcome submissions from people of all genders and none.
Originally published in Solidarity, November 2011.