Tilting at windmills – when the windmills are real

Our small group were on our second round of drinks. We weren’t ready to sit down at the table we’d reserved in a central London restaurant. I was half way through my second gin and tonic when I sensed him come up along side me. He was older and was well known in his field. In fact I knew several people who would describe him as a visionary and credited him with advancing their careers.

He placed his body between mine and the rest of the group – blocking me off.

He started to ask about my work and inched closer to me. I chatted with him and sipped my drink.

As he moved, I noticed the subtle shift. The way he slowly moved us away from the rest of our party, isolating me, pulling me away from the rest of the crowd. Not a move I am unfamiliar with, being a woman. The move often signals that a man is interested in you. He wants you all to himself. It is a move that is recreated in bars and pubs, at parties and social situations around the world – between available people doing that strange awkward dance of getting to know one another.

This happened at an evening event for work. I was there to charm this group into signing a partnership with my employer. I was wearing a plain black dress and my wedding ring. I had done that ‘strange, awkward dance’ with a man who become my husband almost two decades earlier. I wasn’t looking to play this game with this man, or any man, that night.

His arm went around my waist and I felt his hand land on my ass.

I smiled up at him, removed his hand, and made an excuse that I had to have a chat with my colleague as I slipped away from his body.

You would be forgiven in thinking that this blog is about all sexist actions that women endure, from men, in the world of work. But it isn’t. It is about my reaction to this incident. My colleague’s reaction. And the other women in the group.

All of us who see, who watch, who know – and are somehow complicit in an action we did not initiate. It is time to talk about ‘us’.

My colleague walked over to me to ask if I was OK. He said it with a giggle. He had seen this man – larger in frame, higher in status – corner me in at the end of the room away from the rest of the group. He saw me wriggle my way around him. He saw an experienced woman (me) roll her eyes and escape the clutches of a lecherous old man. That was the story he saw. He laughed with me in a collegiate fashion. It was a joke. It was funny.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the man walk off to the bathroom. I noticed we were sitting next to each other at dinner. A woman from the group came up to me and commented, ‘You handled him so well, I am impressed.’ I moved his name card to another place setting at the table and winked at her. The man was obviously known for this type of behavior. Women, young and old, are aware of this type of man. The older you get, as a woman, I guess the better you get at dealing with it. This was what impressed this younger woman in my party.

My age, my experience, my not exactly junior status at this dinner, gave me the skills to navigate a difficult situation. Like an experienced driver, who spots a drunk driver swerving ahead of them on the road, or still being able to deliver your speech after your slide deck fails at an event – experience teaches you many things.

As a woman – it teaches to you to be complicit or die.

What should I or my colleagues or the other woman at the dinner have done differently you ask? Nothing, I can hear you say. I wasn’t physically hurt by the incident (which lasted less than five minutes). I wasn’t particularly rattled by it. I had a lovely rest of the evening (with that man glaring at me throughout – I suspect he knew I moved the name cards). This man wasn’t my boss. He has no direct impact on my career. I wasn’t asking to do business with him (he was just guest at this dinner).

But we were all complicit. We all laughed it off, and shrugged our shoulders because what happened is what happens to women every day. It is commonplace. You can choose to get mad at those who are aggressive or poor drivers – or you can train yourself to always looks both ways when you cross the road and to always wear seat belts. Car accidents are so common it is easier to protect yourself in the advent of one – rather than wail at the injustice of it.

These episodes are so commonplace that everyone woman I know, and every woman you know, has a story about that guy. They will tell you what it is like to walk down a city street in a summer outfit to pick up the paper. They will offer advice on how to claim you have a boyfriend so that creepy guy at work will leave you alone. Over a glass of wine, you will be shown a gallery of photos of dick pics – sent to them by men they had been trying to do business with. Advice will be given to new female staff to ‘never be alone in a lift with this guy‘. These women will stay late at a nightclub because a friend took a drink from a man on the dancefloor and they need to stick around in case it was drugged.

Every woman I know has a spiked drink at a party or a night club story.

Every one of these everyday stories happens with people watching. Whether it is a guy who yells at a girl in a school uniform from his car or a co-worker who waves a paper bell in a female co-workers face – his face twisted in a cruel smile chanting a public joke ‘do you miss your little bell, do you want your little bell‘ – forcing you to either laugh (and be complicit) or get angry (and be dismissed as ’emotional’). These stories happen when other people, other women, are watching – and they do nothing. We are all complicit to the sight of women being dismissed or harassed or marginalized.

Because, as a women, to complain, get mad or try to stop these things from happening, you are made you feel as if you are tilting at windmills.

But what if we had data? Not stories told over a glass of wine. Not anecdotes told over Twitter DMs and hashtags. But real data. That guy at work hasn’t just made you feel insecure – odds are he has done it to others. Incidents of sexual harassment are so commonplace – whether it be Mad Men-style nonsense or gradual gas lighting and marginalization – that most HR managers almost don’t want to know the true extent of the stories. Stories that people – women and men, people of color, people of various sexual orientations, those of different faiths – have when they face actions that have nothing to do with sex or politics or culture, but have everything to do with power.

Those stories, that data – that avalanche is coming.

Those in power, in authority – running companies, controlling funds, driving large trucks – are those who benefit from the status quo. Maintaining that status quo, and therefore their power, depends on maintaining the illusion of the patriarchal protection racket. This racket makes women – women whose careers depend on men giving them patronage, or those who gain validation from male authority figures – unable to speak up or even acknowledge an injustice when it happens in front of their faces.

Instead we laugh, we ignore, we rationalize, we share stories and we give advice.

It makes us complicit to the windmills slicing through our lives and the inevitability that we all are maimed by the slicing blades.


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