Kitchens are tight spaces where people work closely together. The hours are long and you are forced to become close to those you work with. Sometimes, too close. There's a certain amount of machismo in many kitchens. The attitude, which was rather famously and accurately depicted in Kitchen Confidential, tends to be one of toughen up or get out, for better or for worse. We've all worked in these kinds of places (kitchens or not) at one time or another. Thankfully these types of workplaces are on the wane and most modern businesses are much more user-friendly to both male and female employees. Still the mentality of needing to be tough to survive, especially in this business prevails. It's can be hard physical labor. It demands mental agility and stamina to make it through the long, busy hours of prep and service. It can break down spirits and it can make people stronger. As in any profession, the key is picking the right situation to help you grow and move farther along your desired path to becoming a Chef.
Some times it can be hard to determine what actually constitutes harassment. Women are often accused of being too sensitive to the bawdy conversations and harsh attitudes that can prevail in the heat of a kitchen. Friendliness is often misconstrued as sexual intent. That type if situation can go both ways. Friends will stand close and whisper or sling a casual arm around another person's shoulder. That's perceived as a reasonable or even a welcome action. Someone else will see this happening and think that they can do the same thing. If you're not as close to that second person, the same actions may not be acceptable, but it's hard to explain the difference in your response. Small issues morph quickly in tight quarters and so people are extra careful, either to not step on toes or to stomp extra hard with a big "just kidding smile", according to their natures.
When things like this happen, male or female, you are left with a dilemma. How to respond to the unwelcome invasion of your personal space? I'm very fortunate in that I am married and I do work with my husband, so advances are rare. When I was younger, this was not always the case. In many situations I would be repulsed by subtle body brushes, suggestive comments, or outright overtures. It was always difficult to decide how to respond. In those close conditions, making an enemy can make the workday seem interminable. There are many subtle forms of sabotage that can be employed to slowly hound someone out of the kitchen. It never seemed in my best interests to come forward and make a big deal out of these situations. It always seemed as though it would just make things worse. Silent suffering seemed to be the way to go.
I was saddened to realize recently that things haven't changed very much. People, men and women, are still hesitant to come forward when they feel that subtle pressure from someone they work with. The smartest offenders are careful not to cross those invisible lines or do anything concrete that one can point a finger at. Interestingly, as i grew older I realized that this type of subtle aggression is simply about power. It's the way that certain people have learned to maneuver to get what they want. Although it may manifest itself as sexual harassment, it's not about any physical chemistry. It's about domination. It's about someone trying to use you to get what they want.
Over the years I've grown less afraid to challenge people. I'm learning to stand up for myself and defend my personal space and my right to be. Still, when I see situations unfolding or hear stories, I can relate to them. I understand that feeling of frustration and helplessness, that desire to lash out and define boundaries, and the fear that the repercussions will be worse than the suffering that you're currently undergoing. Today I say fight back. I say stand your ground. I say define your boundaries and own your space. It won't e easy, in fact it will probably be incredibly difficult to do. Still, I believe it's better to suffer for your right to be, than to suffer because you're afraid to be. People shouldn't be able to gain their power at your expense. It's important to remember that you have power of your own.