Women Speak Out About The Sexual Harassment They Face Every Day At Work

The allegations against Harvey Weinstein have triggered a wave of revelations about powerful men in the entertainment industries, politics, media and FTSE companies. The behaviour of those in the public eye is being scrutinised. But what about in the real world where a boss in a restaurant, office or hospital holds as much power over their employees as Weinstein did over the young actresses he is said to have harassed?

Sexual harassment permeates through most industries. A Trade Union Congress (TUC) report last year found that on average 52% of women reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment but that in some industries it was much higher. In hospitality industries it is 67%.

Women opened up to HuffPost UK to describe their everyday experiences of harassment at work – from the young woman up against the “Harvey Weinstein of the New York restaurant industry” to a temp worker who has nowhere to turn after a manager groped her behind.

Natalia Ribbe-Szrok has worked in restaurants and bars in London and New York and has had a number of disturbing incidents both here and across the Atlantic. 

When she was 21 years old, the owner of the restaurant she worked in, a man who she refers to as the “Harvey Weinstein of the New York restaurant industry” repeatedly touch her inappropriately.  

<strong>Natalia Ribbe-Szrok has experienced many incidents&nbsp;of sexual harassment&nbsp;at the restaurants and bars she's worked in in London and New York.</strong>

The owner, who was about 60, “stuck his fingers inside” Natalia’s shirt and would touch her bottom without consent, she tells HuffPost.

“Because I was a young, 20-something-year-old girl working in the restaurant industry in New York, I didn’t really think much of it because I was watching other women just tolerate it,” she says. “I didn’t feel in a place to really say anything.” 

Ellen, whose name has been changed in order to protect her identity, was on a temporary contract while working in a restaurant in Glasgow when a senior colleague grabbed her bottom.

“One guy walked past me and groped me as I was carrying a massive plate of food and he just carried walking on. I was so shocked that this happened,” the 19-year-old explains.

The art student, who studies in Dundee, says the hospitality industry can be “especially bad” as it is a very fast-paced environment and there is “so little care for the people working there generally”.

<strong>The hospitality industry can be fraught with problems for workers facing sexual harassment.</strong>

Natalia adds that the restaurant industry in itself is problematic because of the anti-social hours that staff work and the sociable side to the job can cause problems.

“There is this convivial atmosphere and sometimes that can be misconstrued for flirtation,” Natalia says. “You want it to be this hospitable environment where you are all best mates. But there is a line and I think a lot of women are afraid to say, ‘actually that’s not cool’.”

There is this convivial atmosphere and sometimes that can be misconstrued for flirtation.Natalia Ribbe-Szrok, hospitality

And the waters only get murkier when customers – especially those who are inebriated – are thrown into the mix. 

Natalia, 32, who moved to the UK six years ago, says that some customers feel they are entitled to make unwanted advances towards waitressing and bar staff.

“You would get these high-powered (customers).. thinking that you were the waitress and that they could speak to you like you’re nothing.

“It’s little things too, like them calling you ‘sweetie, darling’. It’s the demeaning names, it’s putting the arm around your waist while you’re stood next to the table.

“Or sometimes it’s the discerning looks. You can feel it when you’re standing away from the table and they’re all looking at you.

“That’s the thing, you don’t speak up about it because it seems so small and petty,” Natalia says.

“They are a guest in their restaurant. You’re looking after them but that doesn’t mean they get to do whatever the hell they want.”

While working in a restaurant in Fitzrovia, central London, a customer tried to kiss Natalia before she pushed him away. As he was a regular, Natalia would have to continuously see him following the “awkward” encounter.

“If I’m not engaging with you, why are you forcing yourself on me? Don’t mistake my hospitality as an open invitation to try and touch me,” she says.

Ellen says that in one of the expensive venues she worked in, customers would see waitresses and bar staff “as part of what they paid for”.

“They saw it as part of the package,” she adds.

Often the recipient of inappropriate comments, men would ask if she was “on the menu”. They also asked her to sit on their laps and commented on the “view” when she was clearing tables. 

“They think they can bully you,” she says. “But also because no one does anything about it there’s this whole culture where it is just accepted.”

I never felt like I could talk to anyone because there was never an opportunity where we could have a chat with a manager.Ellen, temp worker

Workers on temporary and zero hour contracts, who might also get work through an agency, can be particularly vulnerable.

“I think the whole zero hour culture.. enables people who do abuse women, as there is no accountability,” Ellen, who says she has never been on a permanent contract, explains.

She wants greater regulation for staff on temporary and zero hour contracts and a clear structure in place that allows employees to raise sexual harassment concerns.

Ellen says that, because she was not on a permanent contract then there was no mechanism in place for her to talk to an employer. 

“I never felt like I could talk to anyone because there was never an opportunity where we could have a chat with a manager,” she says. “If something was wrong you never really had any time to raise it.”

“You feel like you don’t have any protection, you just have to try to appease it,” she adds.

“Without changing the way that casual work is and the structure that exists it’s really difficult because there is just no accountability on any level.”

Danielle Parsons was 24 when she was working on a temporary contract as a secretary in an office in the midlands. 

<strong>Danielle Parsons worked&nbsp;on a temporary contract as a secretary in an office.</strong>

Her experience of sexual harassment while working in the office spurned her on to purse a career as an employment lawyer.

Danielle, now 35, says that she was informed that she did not get a promotion in her workplace because she was not attractive enough or willing to perform sexual favours for the boss.

“I was told by a senior colleague that I did not get a promotion I went for at the time because I had ‘not been hit hard enough with the beauty stick’ and that this man didn’t want a blow job from me.

“Those were the exact words he said to me,” she tells HuffPost. 

“I want to say that I was surprised (by the comments) but I wasn’t.. I felt like I knew the kind of person he was.

“It was unfortunate to be in a position where I felt like I deserved the job and this was the reason why I didn’t get it. I was extremely upset about that,” she adds.

Danielle says that she was told that the only women who would get promoted in the company were brunettes who the boss was attracted to.

One such woman was Danielle’s friend, who she recalls started to feel increasingly uncomfortable in the boss’s presence as he “was trying to look for excuses to touch her” and even moved her desk into his office.

Danielle says that she did not feel able to speak out about these injustices at the time because she was so dependent on the salary and losing her job “wasn’t an option”, especially as it was during the recession.

I was told by a senior colleague that I did not get a promotion I went for at the time because I had ‘not been hit hard enough with the beauty stick’ and that this man ’didn’t want a blow job from me.Danielle Parsons, former secretary

Danielle says: “I was extremely under pressure with my financial situation at the time because I paid my way through college.

“I was in about £10,000 of debt so I was very much struggling at the time.”

The need to hold on to a job means that many women feel as though they cannot jeopardise their employment by speaking out about sexual harassment.

In the hospitality sector, staff are even encouraged to flirt with customers in order to get tips, Ellen says.

And Natalia agrees: “In New York when I waited on tables we got tips, that’s how we made our money. And you don’t want to upset a table that’s some of your rent.”

Soon Ellen will have to start looking for another job, but she remains pessimistic and feels dishearted about what she will have to face when she goes back to work.

She says: “The reality of it is that, when I do go get a job again soon, there’s not any jobs I can imagine myself getting that would be exempt from this.

“All you can hope for is to get somewhere that is run by nice people. It’s really hard to get a job that is a nice place to work in and is also the hours that you need.

“I’m just expecting to deal with these issues again when I do go back to work because it’s just everywhere. I’ve never had a job in hospitality where I haven’t had to deal with these issues.”

Natalia says that there is progress being made in the hospitality industry, but that it’s still an environment fraught with difficulties, due to the nature of the work and anti-social hours.

“It’s gotten better since I started working in the industry,” Natalia says. “There’s more female presence and there’s more women speaking out loud. People aren’t sitting down anymore. They are like ‘no, I will not be spoken to like that’.”

If you have been affected by sexual harassment at work but you felt you couldn’t speak out about it, contact kathryn.snowdon@huffpost.com