With the Christmas party season upon us, many will be dreading much more than simply the prospect of small talk over sausage rolls with their colleagues. Despite its clarion call for peace on Earth and goodwill to all men, for many – women especially – Christmas is far from the most wonderful time of the working year.
Certainly, recent revelations about the severity of workplace sexual harassment are forcing institutions as diverse as Hollywood, parliament and higher education to recognise the extent to which this is a problem faced by women across the workforce. Hopefully, these revelations are leading many organisations to reexamine not only what constitutes acceptable behaviour but also to acknowledge how their set ups have concealed, even facilitated, workplace cultures of harassment and intimidation for far too long.
Considering that around 52% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work, Christmas can represent a daunting prospect. After all, workplace parties and events are notorious for facilitating unwelcome sexual attention and predatory behaviours, predominantly from male colleagues.
In response, organisations such as the CIPD, the professional body for HR managers, offers training events on how to “manage” Christmas gaiety in the workplace. Meanwhile, independent advisory and legal firms provide procedural guidelines for employers during the festive season.
Missives such as these tend to focus, most notably, on reminding managers that their staff remain subject to both company regulations – and the law – during any such events and that anybody contravening them should be subject to disciplinary action. Yet to what extent these missives really address the issues in question is uncertain.
‘Tis the season
After all, Christmas itself evolved from a series of pagan midwinter festivals such as Yule. These often celebrated the more carnal aspects of human life, in response to the darkness and death associated with the bleak midwinter period. Fuelled by an over consumption of alcohol and other excesses, Christmas was a time of inverting established orders of propriety and behaviour – often much of it sexual.
Not that things have changed that much today. Alcohol and excess continue to characterise, for many, an ideal Christmas event. And it is unlikely that one would find a song – like seasonal favourite Baby its Cold Outside which sprinkles glitter over a man ignoring a woman’s pleas to be allowed to go home, while seemingly spiking her drink to ensure his “pride” is not hurt – receiving airplay during any other season. Nor would rites such as kissing under the mistletoe, with its invitation to nonreciprocal intimate contact, be tolerated at other time of the year.
So how to deal with this heady cocktail of Christmas expectations, institutional power relations and the widespread problem of workplace sexual harassment – without spoiling the party? Well, blaming or even banning Christmas is not the answer – as the Puritans once learned.
Not just for Christmas
The Christmas party may seem detached from the rest of the workplace calendar. Let loose by alcohol and dim lighting, “unacceptable” behaviour is presumed to be just another seasonal excess. Yet while the party season might bring these issues to the fore, workplace sexual harassment is certainly not packed away with the decorations and is far from just another Christmas indulgence, akin to one mince pie too many.
Gender-based forms of discrimination and disadvantage persist in our workplaces. The over representation of women in relatively low paid, low status, insecure work, combined with a comparative over representation of men in professional, managerial and political elites illustrates this. If anything, this is worsening – despite equality legislation – given the growing objectification of women in advertising and on social media. The World Economic Forum estimates that it could take 170 years to close the gender pay gap.
Sustained by patriarchal workplace cultures that normalise harassment, these power structures and the inequalities they thrive on mean that seasonal guidelines, while they may have their place, can detract from more substantive issues.
Not least among these is the need to build a culture of mutual respect and esteem. A culture in which any form of predatory behaviour – and the role that organisations might play in concealing or sustaining it – ceases to be tolerated. Recognising and tackling the kinds of institutional structures and workplace cultures that harassment depends on, not just at the Christmas party but all year round, is vital to this.
So, as the lights start to twinkle and our workplaces begin to look a lot like Christmas, recognising the need to work collectively towards genuine equality might be the best gift that we can give – so that everyone can enjoy the party.