Hit on at work

31 OCTOBER 2010
What it feels like… to have your boss hit on you

Six years ago, Dawn Porter had yet to make her name and was desperate for work, so when a producer agreed to meet one evening, she didn’t think twice. Porter has tried not to let her experience affect her confidence (Martina Salvi)

Porter has tried not to let her experience affect her confidence (Martina Salvi)

In the early days of my career, I met a television producer at an industry party, who expressed a very keen interest in some of my ideas. He gave me his card and insisted I should “come in and meet” him to discuss.

I was thrilled. Not many opportunities were coming my way at the time, so I emailed him the next day. He replied straightaway and said that the only time he could meet was the following Friday after work. As I sat waiting for him in a pub in Soho, I was excited. I’d done a lot of preparation on my ideas and was determined to make a good impression. I was dressed well but casually; when he arrived, he looked very smart and reeked of aftershave. I presumed he was going on to a party afterwards — it was Friday night, after all.

Half an hour in, and we had not yet touched on work. When I tried to veer the conversation in that direction, he categorically refused to discuss it and asked me if I was hungry and wanted to get some food. I said yes. I was starving — almost literally, in fact: work hadn’t been going well at all.

We moved on to a small restaurant where, to my surprise, he had already made a booking. He ordered a lovely bottle of wine and asked me about my life. I began to talk, but he clearly wasn’t interested and stared inanely at me with a fake and aggravating smile. By the end of dinner — still no talk of work — I realised that I had been manipulated onto a date. This caused me to change my disposition. I told him I needed to leave shortly, but would really like to discuss work opportunities first. He said: “Sure, sure, let’s go grab a drink.”

Twenty minutes later, we were in a dance bar ordering gin and tonics. It was here that, just as the words “Do you think your company would like to work with me?” were coming out of my mouth, he launched himself at me like a dinosaur and tried to kiss me.

I fell back, pushed him away and barked: “What the hell made you think I wanted that?” To which he went into the typical tirade of telling me I had “led him on” and asked me what the hell was I doing in a club with him on a Friday night if I didn’t want to sleep with him. He also asked me why I had been emailing him “for weeks, pressing to meet up”? As he stood at the bar, looking at me with utter disdain, I left. I felt insulted, humiliated and offended, but, most of all, so stupid.

I have relayed this story to lots of people over the past six or so years since, and the response has always been the same. Men think I am silly to have got as far as dinner if I didn’t plan to sleep with him, and women call him a bastard and totally understand why I was so determined to get what I went out to get in the first place. They also curse him for presuming that dinner and drinks meant certain sex.

According to the child and woman abuse studies unit at London Metropolitan University, one in two women experience sexual harassment at some point in their careers. But where does sexual harassment start? With a statistic as shocking as that, it can’t all be as blatant as a physical sexual advance.

One girlfriend of mine had a boss once call her into his office and ask her to wear padded bras because her erect nipples were distracting other members of staff. She walked out dumbstruck and, soon after, quit her job.

Afterwards she told me: “I wish I had done something to embarrass him back. But the truth is, when this kind of thing happens, you react as if you have done something wrong, even though you know you haven’t.”

It is hard to explain to someone who has never experienced sexual harassment in the workplace why it makes you feel so rubbish, but it is a complete confidence killer and rarely offers a quick recovery. I am not naive. I am fully aware of the power of my own sexuality, and there are times when I use it for my benefit. However, I also know that, on that night in Soho, I couldn’t have been less sexual if I had put on a pig mask and oinked at him.

Since then, I have tried not to let it affect my confidence and to compromise who I am. But there have definitely been times when my paranoia has got the better of me and caused me to be rude and cagey, thus messing up good opportunities for no reason at all. One woman I know, who has experienced something similar, says that she is instinctively cold with male colleagues now, and deliberately dresses down for work so as not to encourage anyone. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel really sad.