He would grope me, make sexual comments towards me. I’d react negatively and tell him to stop but he would say it’s just banter (Picture: supplied)
When I was 16 and working as a chef in a hotel restaurant, I was sexually harassed by a colleague.
During a busy evening shift, another chef was looking for a knife and while we were standing next to each other, he squeezed my bum.
I froze completely. He, on the other hand, got on with his work as if nothing had happened. When he’d gone, I immediately told my friend. Upon reflection, this was the last thing I should’ve done.
Next thing I knew, the front of house staff found out and all of the chefs too – the incident was workplace gossip. I was embarrassed and felt self-conscious that people were talking about me behind my back. Despite everyone knowing, nothing initially happened to the guy who did it.
At the time, I remember thinking the lack of action could be because I made a big deal over nothing. As the youngest member of staff, I felt isolated and like no one was looking out for me. I also felt like I had created this issue by speaking up.
The whole situation made me incredibly anxious. I’d get a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach but had no idea my stomach aches were caused by worrying about everything that was going on. Then he sexually assaulted me again. And again. He would grope me and make sexual comments towards me. I’d react negatively and tell him to stop, but he’d say it was just ‘banter’.
Because he was doing it again and again, it got to the point where it wasn’t a surprise when it happened. I suppose I became almost numb to it. I had found myself in a routine where he would grope me, I’d tell someone, then be annoyed that nothing would get done – and we’d move on until it would happen again. On one morning, I vividly remember trying to work and feeling so stressed that he would grope me again. It was bringing me down and I was looking over my shoulder constantly.
I confided in my friends, but the problem persisted so I just continued my work with it weighing heavily on my shoulders. All of that worry eventually combined into an anxiety attack and I almost collapsed at work. It was then that the bosses realised this was a real problem. Senior members of staff spoke to the chef who groped me but he denied everything.
It wasn’t until another member of staff’s testimony confirmed what he’d done that the chef got sacked. There was no tribunal for his actions. He left the premises and I never heard about him again. He more than likely started somewhere new afterwards and who knows if he learnt his lesson. Having it get that bad left me feeling very angry.
Sexual harassment can completely change your life, yet can so often get ignored. A study last year revealed that one in four young women are scared they will be sacked if they report sexual harassment at work. Meanwhile, a recent Trades Union Congress report titled Still Just a Bit of Banter? found that ‘more than half of all women polled have experienced some form of sexual harassment’.
Why are these stats so alarmingly high? When I was harassed, I didn’t know it was called ‘groping’ or ‘sexual harassment’, which makes it clear that this sort of thing is still not spoken about enough.
I had no idea it had a name. The people around me just kept saying he ‘squeezed my bum’ or ‘touched me’ and when I eventually learnt that it was called sexual harassment, giving it a name suddenly made it a whole lot worse – almost like a delayed reaction.
While educating people about this issue is important, specific rules should be put in place within every workplace so that if someone is sexually harassed, action can be taken straight away.
I was ‘jokingly’ called ‘jailbait’ by a chef once and I was told they’d rather I wore tight trousers than chef’s trousers (Picture: supplied)
I also think it didn’t help that I only worked regularly with one other female chef. The rest of the time, I was surrounded by older male chefs. In my experience, this male-dominated environment breeds toxic masculinity. I only ever worked as a chef in two restaurants.
After I left the one I was sexually harassed in, I could only manage three days because I was having panic attacks about my previous assaults and my anxiety was through the roof. This was because I was hugely uncomfortable with telling the senior chef in my previous role – who was male – that I was being harassed. If a woman took a ‘joke’ the wrong way and was offended by it, the person that created the joke would say it was ‘just a bit of banter’.
This is never a worthy excuse. By implementing rules within the workplace and making sure employers know that this sort of thing isn’t tolerated, we can help to encourage people to come forward if they are made to feel uncomfortable in their job.
This conversation is particularly pertinent after TV chef Dan Doherty was found guilty of misconduct following accusations of sexual harassment last year. Employees allege he told workers he’d like to see them ‘without their whites on’ and asked a female worker for oral sex.
He has since called out ‘mistruths in what was published’ but also said on Twitter: ‘I have made mistakes, mistakes I truly am sorry for.’ In a statement, Dan added: ‘I would never intentionally make offensive comments to anyone I work with, female or male.’
But I heard offensive comments time and time again. I was ‘jokingly’ called ‘jailbait’ by a chef once and I was told they’d rather I wore tight trousers than chef’s trousers. How long will it take for people to realise that words can hurt and they can certainly scar you?
The issue can be buried and attempted to be forgotten about, but it will never go away (Picture: supplied)
Years on from this trauma it still affects me. When I’m out running and have to pass a group of male builders, the memories come flooding back and the waves of anxiety begin to build. I find it difficult to begin relationships with men because I don’t trust they’re not like my abuser.
If I get the wrong idea from someone, distancing myself from them is the easiest thing to do. This sort of thing is damaging to young women and people are failing to realise the extent of the problem. The issue can be buried and attempted to be forgotten about, but it will never go away.
When someone is brave enough to open up about their sexual harassment, we need to believe it and act on it. Knocking down the walls of harassment and sexualised comments within spaces like the food industry will take a long time. If we want to make sure women feel comfortable and safe at work, it’s an absolute necessity.