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“We’ve put up and shut up for too long”: Why it’s time to put a stop to banter in the workplace

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Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. This week journalist, Molly Lynch calls for employers and the Government to kick-start a culture change and put a stop to sexual harassment in the workplace.

Feminist Molly Lynch says:

Banter. My skin crawls at the sight of those six letters. How is it that this part of our lexicon which ought to mean light-hearted chatter has now become the default defence of misogynists and sexists everywhere?

Being told you’ll do well in your new job because you’ve got ‘massive boobs’: banter. Rape jokes in the office? Lighten up, it was just banter.

If you think I’m being melodramatic, then just read the latest research on sexual harassment in the workplace. In the most far-reaching survey of a generation, the Trades Union Congress found that more than half of young women say they’ve experienced sexual harassment.

Perhaps even more depressingly, the survey shows that four out of five women do not report it.


Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, tells Stylist: “There was a lot of campaigning around this issue in the seventies and eighties.

“A lot of people are now under the illusion that the problem is cracked and has gone away but we’ve found this is a major problem.”

Yes, the sort of behaviour which belongs to a bygone era of Benny Hill and sleazy DJs is still alive and kicking in 2016 - where sexual harassment is classified as ‘banter’, and incidents are more likely to be met with a high five than a written warning. Sigh.

The lack of fuss is not a signal of progress but rather proof the problem is so endemic that women are just expected to get on with it. That if somehow, you speak out, or dare to say ‘hang on, that’s not okay’, you’re a snitch, a spoilsport. Attention-seeking, humourless...I could go on.

In some cases, it could even mean career suicide.

“At my first practice, I complained to my line manager about a male colleague who kept texting me flirty, inappropriate messages out of office hours," Amy, a 28-year-old solicitor tells me.

"I was told it was my own fault for giving my number to the ‘office pest’, even though we all have each other’s numbers for work-related reasons.

“He then told me not to ‘go running to HR’ because there was nothing they could do about it.”

workplace sexual harassment

The episode left Amy feeling so humiliated she resigned a month later without another job to go to. Despite her experience - and extensive knowledge of the law - Amy is still reluctant to utter the word ‘harassment’.

“It just feels too strong,” she says. 

Therein lies the problem. The sad truth is that employers simply aren’t doing enough to protect the women who work for them, or failing to create supportive environments where they feel they can speak out.

What this report teaches us is that women across the UK are being badly let down by a ‘let the lads have their fun’ culture. That’s where the banter problem, which O’Grady, believes is a relatively recent phenomenon, has a lot to answer for.

She explains: “This is affecting women’s health and livelihoods. It undermines their confidence and leaves them feeling sexually vulnerable.

“We’re saying enough is enough, and we want employers to take action and put in place zero-tolerance policies, and training so that everyone understands what a lot of people call ‘banter’ can actually be really offensive and upsetting.”

laura bates

Laura Bates: her Everyday Sexism Project collaborated on the new report

The Government must also do more. Those who do complain are not only met with hostility in the workplace, they also face legal costs of £1,200 to bring an employment tribunal.

“Tribunal fees are a massive barrier for women and pricing them out of justice,” adds O’Grady.

One of the biggest problems is in what the TUC calls ‘public facing’ jobs in hospitality or healthcare. Or in the service industry, where the customer is always right - including the bloke at the bar who believes that ogling a barmaid’s breasts is included in the cost of a pint.

Even for women who have been lucky enough (should we even be considering ourselves 'lucky'?) to have worked in respectful environments, the constant comments about how we look or dress seeps, poison-like, into the wider rhetoric that the weight of a woman’s contribution in the world is measured first and foremost by her appearance.

For too long, we’ve put up and shut up.

Let the battle against banter commence.

Send your feminist dilemmas to Ask a Feminist editor harriet.hall@stylist.co.uk and she'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand. 


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