Where is the line between innocent contact and sexual harassment in the workplace? Miriam found out the hard way when she were accused of sexual harassment at her place of work.
Miriam, 29, is a lesbian and last year, her sexuality suddenly became an issue at her workplace after she had touched a female colleagues hand and was suddenly accused of sexual harassment because of this incident.
Miriam had seen her colleague as a confidant and only seen the touch as an innocent touch without a sexual thought in mind when they talked about their relationships. To her it were an emphatic gesture that were meant as a mean of emotional support and not in any way of communicating sexual interest at all.
But after this episode her sexuality suddenly became a problem at her workplace and her team leader demanded that she did not participate in personal conversations with her colleagues any longer. Something that she felt were crossing several boundaries, since she and her colleagues used to talk about their personal life’s daily, and that it were an integrated part of their work day.
Miriam were happy about her job at a retail store at Vivo City, a shopping mall in Singapore. A company she had been working with for several years and generally felt that she had been well treated and in the past also worked at their other locations around in Singapore. She had never concealed the fact that she had a girlfriend and that she were lesbian to her colleagues or superiors. It never felt that she had to limit herself or hide her sexuality while she worked because it weren’t something that came up negatively and she felt liked and accepted where she worked.
It therefore came as a huge shock to her when she suddenly were accused of having violated a colleague and were called into her manager’s office to discuss a “sensitive situation.”, where she were told by her manager that a colleague had felt physically and verbally sexually assaulted by Miriam and had accused her of sexual harassment.
“I was told that I should have touched my colleagues hand a little too affectionate and in the wrong way, and that three other colleagues felt that I had looked at them wrongly in the backroom of the store”.
While talking to her manager, Miriam were told that she no longer were allowed to participate in any personal conversations with her colleagues, especially of any that related to relationship matters and that she should walk away if any of her other colleagues began to discuss their personal relationships while she were near them. Her manager also stressed to Miriam that colleagues do not touch each other in any way whatsoever.
“My manager said that it had nothing to do with the fact that I liked women. But I think it had everything to do with it” said Miriam.
She later found out that the accusation of sexual harassment came from her very close colleague that she had known for years and that the colleague also had told the manager that three other women in the department also felt harassed, but that the manager haven’t directly confirmed this on her own.
Miriam and her colleague had been good friends and close colleagues for some time, they had often lunch together and seen each other outside work as well. Her colleague had even been to her home and met her partner at least twice before in the past, so things between them quickly became very familiar and they had often talked about private matters together both at work and outside work. Her colleague had more than once curiously asked into Miriam’s sexuality and at the same time expresses that she weren’t happy in her marriage and often thought of leaving her husband.
“I asked at one point whether she considered whether she were into women or felt attracted to women, but she answered ‘no’ to that” said Miriam, who at the same time stressed that there had never been anything but friendly feelings between them as colleagues.
The accusation of sexual harassment ends in a sick leave for Miriam and she end up asking if she could be transferred because she didn’t feel welcome there any longer and felt really bad about the whole incident and felt unfairly treated by both her colleague and manager.
“No raised eyebrows if I were heterosexual”
Her other colleagues whom she were told, that they should have felt that Miriam should have looked at them wrongly in the backroom of her workplace, never acknowledged to have been part of the accusation of sexual harassment when she confronted and asked them about it, and Miriam feels convinced that if she had been heterosexual and had behaved in exactly the same way then neither her colleague or manager would have raised an eyebrow.
“I’m more careful at my new workplace. When we make fun and joke with one another, I am always a little nervous and think, uh, oh, I don’t hope they perceive anything I’ve said in the wrong way”.
Miriam is not her real name and she wants to remain anonymous. She confided in me through a number of emails and conversations from August to November 2015 where I got to know about her story. I know about her workplace in Vivo City and her new place of work, and have been able to confirm the existence of several of her colleagues and manager that she named while telling me her story.
Can you be out at your workplace? Are you able to be fully open about your relationship to another woman, or do you feel that you need to limit yourself compared to your heterosexual colleagues?