Is it ever fair game for a boss to hit on a staffer? | OPINION

The underbelly of the #MeToo movement has thrown into sharp relief just how often women are sexually harassed at work. Currently one in every five Australian women experience the discomfort of a fellow employee – or boss – making unwanted advances in a professional setting.

In the U.S., sexual relationships between Capitol Hill lawmakers and their staffers were explicitly banned by the House of Representatives last Tuesday for the same reason. The bipartisan bill was a direct response to multiple recent sexual misconduct cases including Minnesota senator Al Franken and Michigan congressman John Conyers, who have both resigned amid allegations of workplace sexual harassment. 

Whenever allegations of workplace sexual misconduct come to light, perpetrators always say the same sort of thing – they believed their behaviour was in good faith or ‘just a bit of fun’. Within these excuses lies the idea that the workplace is just another social situation – a man is free to flirt with a woman, ask a woman out and even make a move on a woman in the office just like they would in a bar. 

‘Meetcutes’ in Hollywood flicks have taught men that every situation – the office, the laundromat, at a funeral – lies the opportunity for the beginning of a romantic story. In addition to this, a romance side dish is often tacked onto a thriller, drama or almost any other genre to ensure wide cinematic appeal, implying that around every single corner of your life is an opportunity just waiting to be hit on.

But in the real world, it’s almost always a bad idea to hit on a woman at work. As a man, how do you know if your advances are warranted? At the best of times, like a social event, there are cues; lingering stares, nervous smiles, a preoccupation with your conversation. At the worst of times, like at work, recognising these cues goes from tricky to completely distorted; even worse when there’s a layer of hierarchy.

A boss controls a subordinate’s source of income, the stability of their role and even influences their career trajectory. How does a woman confidently reject the advances of her male boss in that situation and, more to the point – should she even have to? 

I say ‘male boss’ because overwhelmingly leadership roles in Australia are dominated by men – around 95 percent of chair positions, 77.4 percent of directorships, 84.6 percent of CEOs and 73.6 percent of key management personnel are male. 

Female staff routinely go along with behaviour like unwanted touching, crude jokes and suggestive conversation that makes them uncomfortable but if flagged can cause awkwardness at best and a job dissolution at worst. But women shouldn’t have to weigh up between indulging a flirty boss and risking their livelihood. 

There is no suggestion of sexual harassment in the case of embattled deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce – he now is living with his new partner Vicki Campion and expecting a child in mid-April. But with workplace sexual harassment statistics at one in five women, this story could have easily gone the other way. That is exactly the sort of situation where the supposed ‘grey area’ of sexual harassment that so many men so loudly lament takes place.

It’s true that we can’t help who we fall for, and of course there are exceptions to the rule – Joyce and Campion are one – but male leaders throughout the country need to understand their female staff are not fair game for their advances. True, there’s an incredibly slim chance you end up with a happy ending, or you could end up shamefacedly resigning amid sexual harassment allegations. So – why gamble? 

Emma Elsworthy is a Fairfax journalist.

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