A schoolgirl has won £15,000 damages after being sexually harassed in her first job. How wonderful it is to see a teenage girl with the confidence to speak out.
When I was 16, I got my first proper job. I worked as an evening receptionist at a tiny counselling service in my hometown, and my role was to open the door when it buzzed, show clients into the counsellor’s office, and then return to picking my fingernails at the front desk. It was deadly dull: the most excitement I ever got was when I overheard gossip from the dentists with whom we shared the building. But it was steady work, and I felt safe there. It never occurred to me that I might feel otherwise.
How would I have responded, aged 16, if I was sexually harassed and bullied in that first job? If my adult, male boss repeatedly whispered in my ear, held me round the waist and tried to hold my hand? If, when I called him out, he yelled at me, began criticising my work, and then cut my hours?
I’d like to say that I would have stood up for myself, but the truth is, I don’t know if I would. At 16, my sense of self wasn’t even half-cooked, and my self-esteem could best be described as amorphous.
Perhaps most significantly, my contact with adult men had been limited to the fleeting, the familial or the otherwise innocent. The only men I interacted with on a regular basis were my parents’ friends, my friends’ parents, teachers and relatives. Like almost every adolescent girl, I’d occasionally had to fend off advances from grown men on the street – but those exchanges were random and brief, not unavoidable and systematic. If I had suddenly become a victim of workplace sexual harassment, I am absolutely sure that I would have had no idea how to respond.
Which is why it’s so remarkable to read about the schoolgirl who took her boss to a tribunal for sex harassment – and won. Henna Sudra has now been awarded £15,000 damages, after Stratford employment tribunal found she had been subjected to “unjustified threats, humiliating behaviour and unwelcome sexual advances” at her first part-time job.
Metro reports that Henna started working as a receptionist at an east London branch of Pizza Hut Delivery when she was just 16 and still at school. She originally got the job through her older sister, who also worked there – but when her sister left the branch, her male boss began to harass her.
Sultan Tanha “made numerous attempts to have physical contact with the claimant, in his high-fiving her, holding her hand, hugging her and taking her by the waist,” said employment judge Catrin Lewis.
He would also shake cheese and pizza toppings over her, Lewis said, and come up behind her to whisper in her ear – “creating an intimidating, hostile and humiliating environment”.
When Henna challenged his behaviour, he responded by criticising the quality of her work, blaming her for things she hadn’t done and reporting her to another supervisor. Her shifts would also be cut without warning or at short notice, which the tribunal found had contributed to her feeling anxious and silenced at work.
But Henna has now been awarded £13,000 for injury to feeling, plus an additional £1,950 for breach of regulations. And we should all celebrate on her behalf – because a teenage girl having the confidence and courage to stand up for herself is a wonderful thing. Why do some grown men pick and prey on young girls? Because they believe they will be more vulnerable and more voiceless than adult women. How brilliant it is to see one such man have that assumption thrown firmly in his face.
Henna’s victory will also hopefully have a ripple effect, showing other young women that sexual harassment isn’t something they simply have to put up with – regardless of their salary, their contract, or how advanced their role is. Although the #MeToo movement was originally launched to support underprivileged women of colour, the current campaign has sometimes felt dominated by the experiences of celebrities. Henna’s story proves that you don’t have to have a public profile, a crack team of lawyers or even a HR department to fight back against workplace sexual harassment. As we approach the one-year anniversary of #MeToo going viral, that feels like an important message to remember.
So congratulations, Henna. We hope you know how inspiring you are to women of all ages – from teenage girls to the women who remember, all too well, just how it feels to be 16.
For one day only on Monday 13 August, Laura Whitmore has taken over stylist.co.uk and transformed it into her very own Speak Up platform – a digital initiative which aims to shine a light on the day’s most important headlines, challenge the status quo, spark debate, encourage conversation and, above all else, champion women’s voices.
For similarly inspiring content, check out Laura Whitmore’s show on BBC Radio 5 Live.
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