Hayley Matthews: Sexual harassment damaged my career but won't beat me
Noticing he had on different clothes to the ones he was wearing in the morning I asked why. The class bully had pushed him in a puddle. For months this little brute has been upsetting my son.
“Push him back!” I enthused, but my son replied: “I’m a nice boy Mummy and I don’t want to fight.”
I realised in that moment that if I wanted my six-year-old to speak up for himself, then I had to lead the way. How easy it is to dish out advice to a child and yet so difficult to follow it ourselves.
I’m going back quite a few years to when I was working in a fairly senior position at a broadcast company. After a management reshuffle, I found myself working with a man who was in his 30s but looked like he was in his 50s. I’d describe him as balding with a pot belly – and outrageously confident.
We needed to visit some clients in Wales over a few days so he agreed to pick me up from the train station. That drive to the hotel was not fun. His mood was incredibly low and I was worried. I thought someone had died.
I asked if he was ok. He told me he was having difficulties with his “girlfriend”. Not the usual difficulties, this was very personal. He couldn’t please her and didn’t know what to do as she’d been complaining about his girth and that he was “too big”. Yes, I can’t actually believe I’m typing these words either. I didn’t react but felt incredibly uncomfortable as he described, in intricate detail, what his manhood looked like.
Despite my efforts to change the subject, he dragged it back to “I don’t know what to do, I’m just too big”. I thought it over, called my boss and I have to say they were all flabbergasted and very supportive in dealing with it.
A year later, amid the financial crisis, I was made redundant. I was left with no sense of purpose and my confidence was low.
However, when I got a call from a friend working in radio offering me some part-time, temporary work, I was thrilled. That thrill faded quickly as I became aware of the vile personality of one co-worker. Now, I have a good sense of humour, I like a laugh, I’m no prude, but this was like nothing I’d experienced before. I was sitting at reception one day when he came in, looked me in the eye and said quietly: “Bet you’d like my big hard c**k in between that cleavage!”
The shock left me with no words. His desperate attempts at striking up sexual conversations continued with questions in the open office like: “If I had to, would I choose two guys or two women to watch having sex together?”
I remember not answering, but he was always persistent. A female colleague egged him on, delighted with his vulgar behaviour in some sort of sick, twisted way. I felt she was taking great delight in my ridicule. Recalling how she behaved makes me think of something the former US Secretary of State Madelaine Albright once said: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
I wouldn’t join in their sordid conversations and was outcast by the small team. It all felt very stressful; however, I needed the job and kept quiet. The train journeys home were filled with relief as I’d cry while going over events in my head.
There was many an uncomfortable moment when he would brag about his encounters with women peeing on him while having sex, boast about how he was due for his monthly sexual health clinic appointment (despite being with a long-term partner), and engage in various other ejaculation-themed chat that would make even Don Draper of Mad Men blush.
I always tried to avoid him in the kitchen after he slapped my bum one morning when I was making tea. I should have dealt with it there and then, but I just shrugged it off until it happened a second time.
It was a hard slap he gave me and I was filled with rage. I told him never to speak to me again and had very little communications with him and his awful female sidekick, which made for a difficult atmosphere. I moved jobs soon after and felt elated. I moved to a job where I had a great boss who was fair, strong and brilliant. I later realised I’d been spoiled with her as a few job changes later saw me sitting in a room having a conversation with a potential employer who offered me a job on the basis that I agreed to never have any “childcare issues”.
Keen to do the job, I naively agreed. Despite using a magic wand on several occasions, I did need to stay home one day to look after my son, and was honest about it. I’ve always been taught honesty is the best policy, but stuff that. Life’s a game! My absence did not go down well, after all we had made an “agreement” and I’d broken it. My male superior told me to sort it out because he didn’t ever want to hear about my “childcare issues” again. It was a bit of an over-reaction on his part; I mean I wasn’t working as a cardiothoracic surgeon, I was just some chick in local media. The stress of worrying what I’d do if my son needed to be off nursery ironically made me very unwell. I was run-down, stressed, ill a lot and, in turn, off sick. Not having much support added to this stress, but my boss told me if his wife could manage to work and have kids, then so could I.
My anxiety had peaked. I couldn’t discuss things with him because he’d told me he didn’t like it when I “chatted back”. How dare I? What did I think this was, The Suffragettes? I later discovered male colleagues were getting paid more than me, so decided it was time to move on again. I often wonder how these situations would have differed if I’d been male. Where would I be on the career ladder? Would I be earning more money? Would I have had more opportunities?
Don’t get me wrong, I know a lot of incredible males. In fact, I’m engaged to one and I’ve given birth to one and I’ll do all that I can to make sure they are the most loving, caring, rational people on this planet. You never know, my son might marry your daughter/grand-daughter one day and you’d want him to be nice to her, wouldn’t you?