I usually wore trousers to school. But I was happy to wear skirts and tights in winter. I even sometimes wore a frock in summer. Well it was Australia and despite air conditioning, the principal still had to walk around outside. Dresses were generally cooler.
So while they weren’t my usual choice, I did have a little collection of pretty conservative school dresses. That is, until The Incident in my office.
I was meeting with a building bloke who was coming to do a number of maintenance jobs in the school over the holidays. I wanted to know the schedule and order of jobs so we could work out when we would not be able to use our offices at all. (We all know the leader and admin work that doesn’t stop even when everyone else is sensibly at the beach.)
So. Picture this. It was holidays. I was in a dress and sandals. No stockings as it was incredibly hot and forecast to be over the old 100 degrees that day. As we were sitting in my office, facing each other on my sensible office chairs, the building bloke leant forward, put his hand on my knee and said, “ I hope you don’t mind me saying but you do have nice legs.”
I moved his hand away, ignored the comment, got up and asked the school bursar (also a woman) in the next office to join us. I let the impudent bloke understand that he had made a big mistake. I finished the meeting as soon as I could. After he left, I rang his line manager and lodged a complaint. I gather he was “spoken to”, whatever that meant, and I certainly never saw him again.
But as you can see, The Incident has stuck with me. At the time I was furious because I knew that this was a situation my male colleagues would never face. And for a long time afterwards I didn’t wear dresses and bare legs to school, despite the weather, just in case anyone else decided that this meant I was fair game for an inappropriate sexual remark or move. I was at work – not speed dating.
Now, as I think about this incident again in the light of our research, and as I read our survey respondents talk about the need to be seen to be professional, I can’t help but think about how ‘professional’ might mean avoiding being seen as somehow available for sexual overture or harassment. Our work clothing has to be some kind of armour, a first line of defence, a a gender neutral statement that says “just see me as leader first and always”.
And I think The Incident did more than change my immediate wardrobe choices.
A lot of people still tell me that they feel a bit nervous about coming up and talking to me. I’m a bit scary at first sight apparently. I always find that a bit strange as I see myself as quite easy going and approachable really. But I suspect I give off a don’t-mess-with-me message – my body language says “Be careful what you say”.
I put this down to twenty years working as a woman and school leader trying to communicate, without ever having to say in words, that I just didn’t want any kind of sexual hassling.
Have any of you had similar experiences? And if so, did it affect your wardrobe choices from then on?
Photo by Taylor Smith on Unsplash