Monday, 19 March 2012

Workplace bullying: a realtime case study.

A few days ago the novelist and journalist Linda Grant wrote a brilliant article for the Guardian about everyday sexism, inspired by a Tweet she had sent commenting on women's position in society today. The response, on Twitter and in the article comments, was huge, as women everywhere simply recounted incidents of injustice and prejudice that they experience and witness every day. Grant wrote extremely movingly about feminism being the greatest, most wide-reaching and successful revolution the world has ever seen and I agree with her completely. It is exciting to be part of such a strong women’s movement, which advances despite such immense and ubiquitous opposition - a misogynist opposition so widespread that it has become the norm, the standard, the default, the context for everything.

On the issue of this opposition Grant is not triumphant but sober. She indicates the sadness, the chagrin, the depression and the sheer horror that come from ubiquitous sexism as it is expressed virtually constantly in “everyday experience, not rhetoric or theory, but the very air we breathe, the way we live, yesterday and today: the small indignities, the opportunities denied, the insults, the patronage, the dismissal, the ignoring, the diminishing, the low expectations, the whole indignity of sexism, including the relentless jokes about it, jokes that are rarely made in relation to racism.”

A few days after Grant's article was published I received the following email and sent the response below. I have kept in the compliments because I didn’t want to edit anything. The writer gave me permission to reprint her emails and all names have been changed.

Dear Bidisha,

I have only recently started reading your blog, and am hooked. I am really enjoying your writing - your honesty and frankness, but also the way you aren't afraid to talk about how sexism makes us feel. I have always been wary of admitting the emotional impact of such experiences, for fear that it somehow makes the facts less powerful.

I wanted to email because I am having trouble at work and my instinct tells me strongly that it is a sexist issue, although I feel sure that those involved would disagree. I am just interested to see what you think, so that I can understand the situation a little better.

I teach music part time at [an educational institution that does extremely valuable work].  I am a performing musician myself, I sing and play cello, in bands and solo. I have recorded in studios and worked with various producers in various genres of music. I am in an a performance collective and am working on a piece of solo theatre which will involve music, comedy and text-based performance. I have also years of experience as a workshop leader, both music and drama, for young people of all ages.

Since I started teaching at this particular [institution] I have had as my teaching assistant a man called Iain, who is 37 (I am 29). Until I arrived at school he was without doubt the only adult at school with experience with 'modern' music in performance, and considers himself to be the go-to guy at school in terms of cool bands and playing guitar. In my lessons he undermines me at times, and in conversation always, always disregards my performance/music experience.

There is another man in school, Sean, who has a degree in music technology.  When I first arrived at the school he was really helpful, offering his help in selecting new equipment but ultimately deferring to my decisions. I considered him an ally, if not quite a friend.

Then, at the staff Christmas party, we were chatting and getting on well.  I thought nothing of it - I am in a 5 year relationship (which he knows) and he is married. But just before he left he tried to kiss me.  I turned him down, said "I thought you were married?" and he left.

Since then, him and Iain have seemed to become a gang. They have arranged music clubs for lunchtimes I am not there, even though I have directly told them not to, and told me I can do the singing with the girls on a Thursday. Eventually, after numerous occasions where I have sat them down and reasonably explained my decisions, I sent an email and cc'd in the headteacher. Sean emailed back, a snide, nasty email that implies heavily that I have done no work towards the project and that he couldn't believe he had to explain this to me again.  To add to that, another teacher overheard Iain speaking to me in a manner not appropriate for him being my teaching assistant, and so I was pulled into the head's office to ask whether Iain undermines me. When I said a reluctant 'yes', the headteacher told me he would deal with it.  The head then pulled Iain out of my lesson, told him off then sent him back to my lesson for the remaining hour, during which time Iain neither spoke to me nor looked at me, and refused to help the kids, instead just saying, "You'd better ask Miss" whenever they asked a question.

I don't know why I felt the need to write to you about this. I am feeling unbearably anxious about the meetings with Sean, Iain and the headteacher on Thursday, and feel that I just am not going to be listened to properly. I suppose I just wanted to ask you whether you thought that I am on the receiving end of some sexist behaviour? I feel sick about the whole situation.

I guess the only other thing to mention is that there is another teacher, Rosie, who is on my side completely, and I know she fearlessly sticks up for me.

I imagine you are very busy, so obviously you might not have time to reply.  In fact, even just writing this email has helped me see things a little more clearly.

I replied,


You are absolutely totally and utterly being victimised in a range of pretty typical sexist ways, all of which are deeply detrimental in combination. Your email makes this very clear indeed. You have done all the right things and (if I may) kept your head very well while all this is going on! You have been proactive, clear and dignified and you have not internalised what is happening.

I wondered if you would give me permission to use what you have written and put it on my blog, with all names changed, along with this reply. I feel it would be very powerful in letting other women know they are not alone - and that the methods of bullying are universal. Your situation may feel isolated and specific but frankly I think you will find that many women have experienced the same, in different fields, and will know what you are going through: the lurking suspicion, the disbelief, the sadness (which I think is always greater than political anger), the confusion about what to do and the horror that it is happening at all, perpetrated by people who seem to be normal, decent guys, colleagues, friends.

Dismissing and undermining a woman, talking down to her, ignoring her, freezing her out, erasing her expertise and contribution, ganging up on her, freezing her out from meaningful and interesting projects, bullying her, refusing to acknowledge her or help her - and outright sexually assaulting her - are all sexist behaviours. Luckily some of these behaviours have been witnessed by other colleagues.

It sounds like a very claustrophobic situation, too. You have been right in taking it to the head and extremely brave in confronting the perpetrators themselves. They now know that you are interpreting their behaviour (rightly) as sexist and bullying. The man who tried to kiss you has grossly overstepped the boundaries of normal, decent, civil (or legal) behaviour and has committed an attempted sexual assault.

I am at a loss for how to advise you. I feel incredibly sad in writing and thinking about possible courses of action and in contemplating how this is poisoning what sounds (reading between the lines) like an otherwise lovely, interesting and challenging job. You could take it to a tribunal - sexual discrimination, bullying - but even if you won, you would be isolated and scapegoated afterwards. Even when a woman wins a tribunal about workplace issues, it can be hard to go in there again as the legal process is tainting in itself.

But you can't continue in this way at all. You have a right to work and to have your no doubt great contribution, expertise, experience and talent acknowledged with gratitude, welcomed into the broader work that is done and thankfully referenced. You have a right to face your colleagues without fear of bullying, belittling and sexual harassment/assault and a right to flourish as a teacher and a musician of great pedigree.

It is not as though you want the perpetrators 'punished', as such; more that you want to be able to do what you do best, without being undermined or mistreated.

If I were you, I would talk to Rosie and ask if she might support me, then I would submit a formal complaint to the head (if you have not already done so) and if there are any 'higher' disciplinary bodies, giving as many specific examples, with times, dates and dialogue, as possible. I would explain what specific action I would like taken. If this makes no difference, or things become worse....

....Perhaps it's a sign that the universe wants you to step out onto a bigger stage, as a creative theatre, music and performance star in your own right. Sometimes a school is too small to contain a woman's charisma, talent, guts and gifts.

Lots of love,


She replied,


Thank you so much for your response. I feel heartened by it, and a lot more confident in facing the meeting on Thursday. I do feel that I have been frozen out, belittled and bullied, but I think I hadn't really seen it like that.  It feels so shocking and personal, somehow insidious, that I have been seriously asking myself whether it's my fault.  However, now I am prepared to go in and fight my corner, as much as I would infinitely prefer not to have to. I feel so bored by the situation, really, a sort of fundamental boredom, bored by even having to go down this path.

But, yes, of course please do put this up on your blog. Also I have sent my email and your response round to some friends and family and many have already come back to me in support. Also a friend (who has more experience in workplace confrontation) is going to prep me for the meetings so I can express myself in the most calm, assertive way possible! I will certainly talk to Rosie and engage her support as well.

Again, thank you so much, I so appreciate your warm, compassionate response.


Well...Thursday has come and gone. I wonder how it went.

UPDATE, as as 27.3.12. Well! Now you know:

Hi Bidisha,

Thanks for publishing the story, I hope it helps other people in similar positions not feel so alone.  I went into the meetings feeling confident and reasonable, and came out feeling like I had stood my ground and shown that I wasn't going to take any of that behaviour, and it worked. I compromised at the points I had decided I could compromise on, and since then have been feeling much better about the whole situation. I have also decided that I am not going to let it upset me, and will deal with problems if and when they arise without letting what's happened and what might potentially happen dent my confidence.

A few people have contacted me having read your blog post, and so I was wondering whether you could take out the reference to [certain identifying factors]? It hadn't occurred to me before that these things would would identify me as much as my actual name.

Thanks, and again, thanks for your help and support, it has helped immensely.

Love Harriet x 

My reply:
Yes, I will take out the references you mention immediately.

May I include this exchange at the bottom of the blog post? It will make many readers delighted. You have been noble, civilised, high-minded, shown absolute smarts under great pressure and acted with a confidence and a sense of self-worth which have shone the way. And you have triumphed without losing the job you love the work you excel at.

Congratulations - I am full of admiration.