It’s not sexual harassment. It’s bullying.

Published: August 8, 2010 at 12:42pm


You know, I really wish women wouldn’t be such wimps. Bullies identify their victims as those who are susceptible to bullying.

They describe a wide circle around those who are obviously not going to give them the satisfaction of feeling victimised, and an even wider circle around those who are going to blast them to hell (“You lookin’ at me?”).

It’s no different when men bully women in the workplace. They do it because they get a kick out of it, and the kick – as with all bullying – comes from the feeling of power they get over their timid, shivering victim.

The solution is right there: don’t be a timid, shivering victim. It’s all well and good to say this to children suffering in the schoolyard, where they feel powerless, but when you’re a woman in the office, you really have no excuse.

What is your colleague going to do, for heaven’s sake – get his little gang of men-friends to head you off in the lavatories and give you a wedgie? Hide your stapler? Drop your mug accidentally on purpose? Photoshop your face to a porn-star’s body and pin it up on the notice-board?

I really have no time for this. Women bang on about equality and discrimination and then fail to understand that by their very own omission in not giving as good as they get and dealing with the bullying louses themselves, they are enshrining the status of women as victims and undermining their own so-called equality.

Nobody is going to make you equal once the laws are already in place. You have to do that for yourself.

What does a man do if a woman asks him to sit between her legs, at a business meeting? He doesn’t run off sobbing to an industrial tribunal. He laughs. If he feels offended by the remark – and a man will feel offended only if the woman is a dog, otherwise he will be flattered and dine out on the story for weeks – he will pass a sarcastic comment and humiliate her in return. He will win back the ground he has momentarily lost.

He will not run away crying and refuse to return to work. He will not go to an industrial tribunal. He will keep his dignity. There’s the clue, but women just won’t read it. Keep your dignity. You don’t do that by going to an industrial tribunal and claiming compensation for psychological distress.

I read with enormous interest the news reports on how an industrial tribunal ruled that a woman should be paid a couple of thousand euros for the distress caused her by a (male) colleague’s remark during a sales-and-marketing meeting. His words provoked her to run out of the room in tears, to head for home and to stay away from work because of what the Victorians used to call her nerves, or more properly, a fit of the vapours.

This was deemed to be a great victory for women. I hate to be at odds with everyone else, but I think it’s just the opposite. When women insist on behaving like children, they ensure that they continue to be treated like children. Grown women stand their ground and fight back. They do not go to industrial tribunals and company doctors and cry and claim psychological distress. That’s just about as grown-up as running to the headmistress and getting your mother to write you a sick-note.

The industrial tribunal, and all those who commented on its findings, classed that ‘sit between my legs’ remark as sexual harassment. I might be going out on a limb here (for a change….) but it’s not sexual harassment at all. It’s pure and simple bullying.

If a man wants to have sex with a woman colleague who is his junior, and is trying to pressure her into it, the last thing he will do is make a pass at her in front of 20 other colleagues at a sales and marketing meeting. That would be the equivalent of asking a girl out, when you are 16, in front of a crowd of hollering mates. It just doesn’t happen.

I suspect that what we have here is the usual verbal confusion. People have confused sexual harassment (the aim of which is to extract sexual favours from your victim) with bullying, in which the victim’s gender is a prime factor and sexual intercourse features nowhere at all. To spell it out: the victim already perceives herself as weakened because of her gender. She starts out feeling inferior.

Bullies smell this sense of victimhood and pounce. You see the same sort of bullying in which the victim is already weakened by a sense of inferiority or low self-esteem because of skin colour or ‘outlander’ status.

Suggestive remarks made in front of others to women are straightforward bullying and not sexual harassment. Lots of us girls learned this lesson in our teenage years, when we also discovered that the best way to deal with it is the very same way you deal with all other forms of bullying: you call their bluff (“So how about it, then, John/Tony/Simon? Come on – let’s see what you’ve got.”). Because the reaction they expect is you running off in tears, this foxes them completely to the point where – and this happens if you’re really good – they run off in tears themselves.

To my mind, there is only one possible response to a man who tells me, in front of 20 other people at a business meeting, that I should sit between his legs, when I walk in and point out that there’s nowhere for me to sit. And running out of the room sobbing to take extended leave of absence and call the doctor does not feature anywhere in that response.

So come on, girls, bring out your notebooks and jot this down: Daphne’s Alternative Guide to an Industrial Tribunal. You look at him and you say, in clearly enunciated syllables that can be heard by everybody in the room, particularly because it has now fallen silent: “Sit between your legs? What an excellent idea. With such a small dick, there should be plenty of space.”

The last thing you should ever do is run to an industrial tribunal. You might get €2000 and a judgement in your favour, but you will lose your dignity and mark yourself out as the classic bully’s victim. There is nothing like self-possession. Bullies just can’t handle it. So get some, and use it.

This article is published in The Malta Independent on Sunday.

38 Comments Comment

  1. Red nose says:

    Really great and dignified article.

  2. Jean says:

    Ten out of ten.

  3. Edward Caruana Galizia says:

    Daphne, I agree with you for the most part. However, I will say this.

    We have laws to protect people from being bullied for a reason. One of those reasons is that some people are not the type to be able to talk back that quickly. It s not because they are weaker.

    Some people just don’t know what to do in such situations. Although giving a good comeback is great I personally wouldn’t go as far as to say that seeking legal action results in a loss of dignity. I think it is just another way of getting back at the bully.

    Some people might not like to talk a certain way. Others might not know, because they are young or unaware of their rights, that they can talk back to a superior in a boardroom in front of many other people. You may have been able to come up with a comeback, but someone else might not. So they use the legal system, which is there for a reason.

    I see nothing wrong with that.

    [Daphne – There’s a lot wrong with it, Edward. It’s like treating the symptoms but not dealing with the cause. This woman is obviously unequipped to deal with life, and will run into the same problems in other situations in other workplaces. She doesn’t seem to have any coping skills, very little emotional intelligence and no assertiveness (which is taught, and learned).]

    Telling someone to toughen up might work in some cases, but when a person is just not that type of person then the bullying will just continue, worsen and reach a point where it may result in something worse. A “disaster first- action later” attitude is not that affective.

    That being said I agree that people who are part of a social minority should not let it show that things get to them.

  4. Not Tonight says:

    Well done, Daphne. Being the only female in my brood taught me, very early on, to stand my ground and give in kind. Needless to say, there wasn’t much bullying directed towards me, whether at home or out of it.

    [Daphne – Well, I am one of four sisters and the result is pretty much the same despite the absence of brothers. I can’t see any man telling us something like that at a meeting and having us run off to an industrial tribunal in tears.]

    • Joseph A Borg says:

      Interesting point. Some are now blaming an increase in depression amongst youths to helicopter parenting and the past decades’ fad of ’empowering’ children by telling them they’re special instead of making them work for it…and teaching them how to extract value/recompense from their work.

  5. Marisa says:

    Brilliant article! I agree wholeheartedly. Women should learn to deal with these types of men on their same level … “botta u risposta”, there’s no bigger satisfaction than that, not even €2000 awarded by the tribunal!

  6. Albert Farrugia says:

    So, by the same token, if someone insults me, I don’t go report him to the police, I take the law in my hand and punch the guy. If someone robs me, I don’t act as a wimp and expect the police to solve this, no. I act the vigilante, find the offender myself, take back what is mine and burn down his house, Bruce Willis style.

    [Daphne – Your comparison is ill-founded. Besides, I never suggested she punch him – only that she reciprocates in kind: verbally. She would have gained respect, ended the bullying, and kept her job – and none of that bloody hassle with an industrial tribunal. She could even have turned him into an ally if – when the balance had been redressed – she went up to him and said, look, let’s call a truce here. You get off my case, I’ll get off yours.]

    What you seem to forget is that we live in a society which is a little bit more evolved than that. We have laws which protect even those who might not be as strong as others in defending what they have.

    What you wrote today might be interpreted in the sense that those who might not be lucky enough to have a character strong enough to hit back strongly, deserve their fate. Very, very dangerous words indeed.

    [Daphne – Anybody can have a strong character. This is something learned, and not something people are born with. I’ll admit that most of the lessons are learned in childhood from parents, but there’s nothing to stop anyone trying to learn them later in life. There are entire training programmes in assertiveness which teach precisely this skill.]

  7. david g says:

    I think in entering the meeting she expected anyone of the man present in the meeting to go and get her a chair, by asking where she can sit as usual.

    This drove him in anger to react to say what he said rather than,go and get a seating yourself?

  8. Mark Pace says:

    Excellent ending. I too thought that too much importance was given to this issue and so glad to see you try to put some common sense into it.

    I agree that the remark “sit between my legs” was not exactly sexual harassment. I believe it was a case of vulgar language. It certainly wasn’t going to lead anywhere near sexual favours from the victim especially in front of so many people. Harassment is normally discreet between just the two persons.

    Your advice in Daphne’s Alternative Guide reminds me of an incident that occurred a few years ago to a (female) friend on a bus. She was sitting alone and directly across the passage a man sat alone exposing himself, masturbating.

    She had the gumption to tell him to hurry up and get on with it. He was so shocked in disbelief at her reaction that he jumped off the bus at the next stop, with embarrassment ran off as fast as he could.

  9. Min Weber says:

    Excellent advice! Also, your analysis is spot on. The only logical conclusion is that the other people present were also responsible for this act of bullying because of their silence.

    • Joseph A Borg says:

      Was it really bullying? If anything it was pub talk…

      I think we’re stretching the term here… this isn’t kinder or primary school

      From my limited reading of the situation: she seems to have been last to get to the meeting since there where no chairs left. What if the meeting was starting late because some felt it was ok to dilly dally.

      Then she had the cheek to act like the damsel-in-distress looking for her knight-in-shining-armour. Is that equality for you?

  10. C.Farrugia says:

    Hi Daphne,
    I quite agree with your argument in this article except for the conclusion. I think that I would not go down to the man’s level and respond to his comment as you suggest. My answer would be ‘Oh, let me think about it! Actually, I would much rather sit between your ears as it seems to me that there is plenty of space there!’

    [Daphne – Sorry to disabuse you of the notion, but that won’t be half as effective. The way to the average man’s ego, as somebody once famously said, is not through his stomach (or for that matter, through his mind), but a little further down. That applies to criticism as well as to praise.]

  11. Leonard says:

    To be fair, it’s easier to comment after the event, and it could very well be that the lady in question was caught off-guard by the sales and marketing manager’s remark.

    According to the report, this meeting was with the company directors. What I find rather telling is that this man felt no qualms about making such a remark in front of the company directors.

    Also, the report does not say anything about the other men’s reaction when the S&M guy made his remark. Did they burst out laughing or did they stand up like knights in shining armour?

    [Daphne – Caught off guard? She was the one who walked right into it by entering the room and saying, when she noticed no chair was available, ‘Where am I going to sit?’. What I would have said is ‘I’ll just go and get myself a chair, unless one of you nice men would like to do it for me.’ When men behave boorishly – and remaining seated when a woman enters the room and has nowhere to sit is boorish in any circumstances, it’s always best to remind them of their manners.]

  12. R. Camilleri says:

    Lovely article. Couldn’t agree more. I also think these sort of cases dilute the meaning of “sexual harassment”. Sexual harassment can now mean anything from a stupid joke to bullying a female to real harassment where a superior is actually demanding sexual favours from a subordinate.

    • Joseph A Borg says:

      “real harassment where a superior is actually demanding sexual favours from a subordinate”

      I came to say this. I thought Daphne was expecting a subordinate to stand up to an employer/manager … thinking everybody was born with her spunk.

      Reading the article, I’m dumbfounded by the lack of clarity from the tribunal. Local feminists should be up in arms against this judgement or else risk women rights in the workplace getting discredited further.

  13. Chris Ripard says:

    Your stablemate Pamela now Hansen not only agrees with the sentence but also dismisses the damages awarded as “peanuts”.

    I’ve “half a mind” to join the Men’s Rights Association . . . which is pretty much all one needs.

    [Daphne – Well, nobody’s ever going to ask her to sit between their legs, so she’s covered.]

  14. maria aquilina says:

    I totally agree with you. Once someone passed a vulgar remark when I was wiping something in front of other colleagues. I was a bit embarrassed but I put the answer he put to me back to him.

    He (he was a professor) became red in the face and continued with his business.The next day he was so ashamed that he put his face down when we came face to face in the corridor.

  15. Moira Heath says:

    This article is a brain-dump of all that was going through my head when I was reading this “sexual harassment” case in the newspaper. I was gobsmacked at how a fully-grown woman could allow herself to be bullied this way without retort.

    When I discussed this with my (male) colleagues, and told them what my reply would have been (word for word what you said in the article) they agreed that not all women have such capacity to stand up for themselves – some will indeed go home and cry into their pillow.

    So I think some of us really need to pull our socks up and become a bit more streetwise. The world is not full of pink clouds and fluffy bunnies.

  16. Silverbug says:

    This is a version of what I said this week. If that remark came my way, and various have tried (once, and they do not try for a repeat) I would have said that at least he would have something between his legs.

    But there is another side to this. If you do not take to this bullying and stand up for yourself, you are branded as aggressive, butch etc. Now while I have no inclination to seek to be liked by workplace bullies, the epithets proliferate and people who do not know you will hear about you in this way. So, it is still a long hard road.

    But I agree..not solved through tears and vapours.

    [Daphne – Exactly what is wrong with being branded as aggressive or butch? I mean, do you care? It’s a whole lot better than being known as a walkover. Also, it’s quite possible to be really forbidding without being even remotely butch. Somebody very closely related to me is excellent at it. Nobody would ever dare ask her to sit between their legs, even though they would probably love it if she did.]

    • Joseph A Borg says:

      Same thing happens if you’re a man. Not all males aspire to be Chuck Norris you know? I vaguely suspect that even emancipated women want to keep that damsel-in-distress image. That’s an old stereotype. Ditch it.

  17. Daphne….do you make me out to be a psychological shivering wimp?

    And yet, I’ve been through this.

    How someone could have seen me as an easy target is quite mysterious, but when it happened (not too long ago), I regret not going to an industrial tribunal instead of handling matters the way I did (for over a year proudly and strongly reacting in the way that you describe in your article).

    When the bully is high up in authority, when the bully/harasser is protected by higher management, the only solution is to name, shame, fine, (the ridiculous amount is a whole story in itself) and get out.

    The quick quips, the answering back, the one-upmanship, which I am quite an expert in and enjoy, becomes tiring and takes over your life, and if you’re lower down the ladder than the bully you know that they always have the ‘insubordination’ card up their sleeves…and they will use it…unless you shame their ass beforehand!

  18. Steve says:

    Daphne, not everybody is as strong as you! For some, a quick witty riposte is the norm, for others, it just doesn’t roll off the tongue. I do agree that your way is the best way of dealing with bullies, but it’s not for everyone.

  19. David Buttigieg says:

    However, as you pointed out, this applies to workplace bullies.

    School yard bullying is a different animal and has to be nipped in the bud, even though it should be handled by the school rather then have the police called in straight away as seems to be the norm here!

    “What does a man do if a woman asks him to sit between her legs, at a business meeting? He doesn’t run off sobbing to an industrial tribunal. He laughs.”

    I’m not sure about that today, with all these ‘metrosexuals’ out there.

  20. David Buttigieg says:

    Another point, however harsh it may seem, is that this woman has rendered herself practically unemployable in the real world!

  21. Line Cert says:

    Well said Daphne! Now be a good girl sweetpie and come sit on my lap.

  22. Spiru says:

    Why is it boorish for a man to remain seated when a woman comes in and there’s nowhere to sit? You advocate equality, and just as I don’t expect anyone to go and get me a chair, I don’t expect to do it all’ ebda qaddis, ha ha nitfaghielek bil-Malti !!

    [Daphne – Equality and bad manners are not the same thing. And incidentally, even if a man were to walk into a meeting and find nowhere to sit, the other men present should at least make a show of helping him find a chair. It is the HEIGHT of bad manners to remain seated and indifferent when another person – man or woman – walks into the room and is left with nowhere to sit. On the whole, I find that manners in Malta – among men AND women – are appalling. People here tend to be obtuse and boorish. It sets my teeth on edge just watching. One example: I went to have my ID card renewed and heard the non-Maltese man before me being told, by the photographer, ‘SIT!’. I lent over and told him, ‘That’s a command for dogs.’ I then asked him whether the cards are biometric, and his answer was that ‘tsk’ sound savages make when they want to signify the negative. I asked him again, feigning lack of comprehension, and without looking up from the computer he said ‘Le!’ in a terse voice. As I left the room, he was being surly to somebody else. I then went to queue to collect my actual card and heard the non-Maltese man ahead of me being asked for his passport with the single word ‘PASSPORT!’. It was only because one of my sons was with me, and wouldn’t have appreciated the scene, that I didn’t lean across and say loudly, ‘MAY I HAVE YOUR PASSPORT, PLEASE?’ ]

    I know I’m boorish, just a bit ta’ wara l-muntanji, but there you go, I’m using your same mindset and arguments.

    Great article and spot on, by the way!

  23. Funny that you constantly rant about Maltese mediocrity, and then forget to question why the manager was never disciplined. When you know perfectly well that in any half-serious organisation, he would have been immediately placed under investigation, and potentially summarily dismissed.

    And so would the woman, had she taken your advice.

    [Daphne – Businesses are there to make money and not to police gender issues or protect fragile egos. No business is going to sack a valuable employee because he has been rude to a less valuable employee. Like it or hate it, that’s the way it is: state-owned corporations and government departments can do all the disciplining they wish for gender reasons, but business are concerned with profit and cannot tell their shareholders that a man who made money for them has been removed because he asked a woman to sit between his legs. What do they care about her ego? They care about the bottom line, and they’re right. If he had been a rubbish employee, they would have used the opportunity as a godsend by which to get rid of him, but they clearly thought that it was an opportunity to let the woman go instead. They’re running the business, they’re the ones investing, it’s their decision. And no, the woman would not have been sacked – because it would have been an equal response and these things are considered to balance each other out. She would have been sacked if she said it to him out of the blue, but not in response to what he told her. Didn’t she lose her job anyway? Better to go out in a blaze than with wet pants.]

    • Again, wrong.

      The best businesses make money because they have the best people. If, during a meeting, and in front of senior management, my manager insults my colleague, and she replies in kind, and senior management does nothing about it, then that firm’s profits are not worth the paper they’re written on. Firstly, because people talk, and firms known to have a bad rep attract crap workers. And secondly, because managers and workers who talk crap tend to take crap business decisions.

      Except in Malta, obviously.

      [Daphne – I’m sorry, but your reasoning is nothing but a series of non sequiturs. ‘Best’ in business terms is the ability to make money and not the ability to be polite and civilised. Of course, being polite and civilised is an added bonus. And I think you’re more than a little hyperbolic in claiming that the profits of a company are worth nothing in your estimation if a manager insults a colleague and she replies in kind. Who cares about an altercation between two people at a meeting? Certainly not the shareholders. They care about those profits you’re so cavalier with. Also, any business worth its salt would rather have somebody who snaps back a sharp-witted reply than somebody who runs off and cries – for bloody obvious reasons. Which one is demonstrating the better ability to survive in the market place? ]

    • ciccio2010 says:

      “Businesses are there to make money and not to police gender issues or protect fragile egos. No business is going to sack a valuable employee because he has been rude to a less valuable employee.”
      Not sure I can agree with this. This man has earned a lot of money for his shareholders, but he was sent packing (in spin language, he resigned) just last week.

      In the Anglo-Saxon countries, sexual harassment at the work place is deemed to be a very serious issue. No one would laugh if a joke contains a hint of sexual discrimination or harassment.

      In those countries, if a business is somehow associated with a lax culture on sexual discrimination or harassment, it will simply not attract good employees who care about their reputation and the reputation of the company they work for.

      [Daphne – Bollocks. Ask around about the culture in investment banking, for example, or any other business where part of established practice is entertaining clients at lap-dancing clubs.]

      • ciccio2010 says:

        Daphne, I did not have investment bankers in mind as employees of good reputation (exclamation mark). Look what they have done to the banking system and to themselves.

      • Joseph A Borg says:

        wrong interpretation of the Hurd story. Some clarity provided here:

        The CEO is a flag bearer. If he cannot rally the troops to follow him into battle then he needs to be ditched. That’s what the board of directors did — in the most humiliating way possible.

        The only thing worst they could have done was allege that he had pedophile material on his work computer.

  24. A series of non sequiturs? Fair enough, we can go back to basics.

    The shareholders do not make any money for a business, the management does. I hold shares in company A. The only say I have in Company A’s profitability is my vote to elect Company A’s board.

    If the only thing I know about a potential candidate is his strategy of allowing managers to insult workers, then I’m likely to pass him by, and vote for someone who doesn’t. Because his manners are usually a good yardstick of his ability to talk smart, think smart, and make me (the shareholder) a good return on my investment.

    And if I’m looking for a job with that company, I’ll pass that company by, too. Because if a client gets wind that my manager is talking rubbish, he’s likely to go to our competitor.

    Any business worth its salt knows that there is one thing that’s more important than profits: reputation. And usually, managers who insult workers ruin both a company’s reputation, and its profitability.

    [Daphne – I have the strangest feeling that the company was glad to see that woman go and that the manager knew this, which is why he felt comfortable saying what he did. It wasn’t justified, but there you go.]

  25. Daphne I think you’re going from one extreme to another. If I had been a young girl/woman and found myself in that situation I wouldn’t have had the guts to reply as you would have done.

    [Daphne – The point is, Marika, no man would have had the guts to speak to me like that in the first place, and this even before I acquired a national reputation. The question to ask is, why? Victims either have it written on their foreheads that they are weak and frightened or they are the type to ‘engage’ with the bully, entering into a relationship of reciprocal banter that becomes a form of play in itself. With men like that, you have to first make sure that you are not the type they are going to bully and, should they misjudge the situation, the only permanent solution is to cut them up verbally. And I mean cut them up, not just a witty wisecrack.]

    However, I wouldn’t have rushed out in tears, I wouldn’t have stayed off work, I wouldn’t have had a nervous breakdown, I wouldn’t have even contemplated the Industrial Tribunal.

    I would have just ignored the man and gone off and got a chair for myself.

    And I’m sure that’s what most women would have done. These sort of remarks are so common in the workplace that if everyone, male and female, went to the tribunal there would be a waiting list to rival Mater Dei’s.

  26. d falzon says:

    Knowing the little man involved, I would argue that this lady is very courageous.

    Being such a loser, this idiot has been making people’s lives hell for many years. Most, those with better mobility, end up leaving the company. The less fortunate simply accept the abuse and try to build a perverse sense of normality.

    Unfortunately the HR manager at this company is a victim of the person involved and higher management seem to accept the antics. Ask around.

  27. Loredana says:

    I totally agree. If fact I wrote something on similar lines on and it was removed after half a day. I think that women should know how to defend themselves and not get a breakdown just because an idiot offers a seat on his lap.

  28. Joseph A Borg says:

    Stumbled on this interesting transcript. An FBI mole in a all male management meeting. The transcripts include talk of promoting some women in the corporation…

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