With the Christmas party season upon us, many will be dreading much more than simply the prospect of small talk over sausage rolls with colleagues.

Despite its call for peace on Earth and goodwill, for many — women especially — Christmas is far from the best time of the working year.

Certainly, recent revelations about the severity of workplace sexual harassment are forcing institutions as diverse as Hollywood, Parliament and higher education to recognise the extent to which this is a problem women face in the workforce.

Hopefully, these revelations will lead many organisations to re-examine not only what constitutes acceptable behaviour but also to acknowledge how their set-ups have concealed, even facilitated, workplace cultures of harassment and intimidation.


Considering that about 52 per cent of women have experienced sexual harassment at work, Christmas can be a daunting prospect. After all, workplace parties and events are notorious for facilitating unwelcome sexual attention and predatory behaviours, predominantly from male colleagues.

Some independent advisory and legal firms provide procedural guidelines for employers during the festive season.

These tend to focus on reminding managers that their staff remain subject to both company regulations and the law during any such events and that anyone contravening them should be subject to disciplinary action.

Yet to what extent these missives really address the issues in question is uncertain.

After all, Christmas evolved from pagan festivals such as Yule. These often celebrated the more carnal aspects of life. Fuelled by too much alcohol and other excesses, Christmas was a time of inverting established orders of propriety and behaviour — often much of it sexual.

Not that things have changed much. Alcohol and excess continue to characterise, for many, an ideal Christmas event. And rites such as kissing under the mistletoe, with its invitation to non-reciprocal intimate contact, wouldn't be tolerated at other times.

So how to deal with this heady cocktail of Christmas expectations, institutional power relations and the widespread problem of workplace sexual harassment — without spoiling the party? Well, blaming or even banning Christmas is not the answer.

The Christmas party may seem detached from the rest of the workplace calendar. Let loose by alcohol and dim lighting, "unacceptable" behaviour is presumed to be just another seasonal excess.

Yet while the party season might bring these issues to the fore, workplace sexual harassment is not packed away with the decorations and is far from just another Christmas indulgence, akin to one mince pie too many.

Gender-based forms of discrimination and disadvantage persist at work. Women's over-representation in relatively low paid, low status, insecure work, combined with an over-representation of men in professional, managerial and political elites illustrates this.

If anything, it is worsening. It's estimated that it could take 170 years to close the gender pay gap.

Sustained by patriarchal workplace cultures that normalise harassment, these power structures and the inequalities they thrive on mean that seasonal guidelines, while they may have their place, can detract from more substantive issues.

Not least among these is the need to build a culture of mutual respect and esteem in which any form of predatory behaviour — and the role organisations might play in concealing it — is no longer tolerated.

Recognising and tackling the kinds of institutional structures and workplace cultures that harassment depends on, not just at the Christmas party but all year, is vital to this.

So, as our workplaces begin to look a lot like Christmas, recognising the need to work collectively towards genuine equality might be the best gift we can give — so everyone enjoys the party.

Hancock and Tyler are Essex university professors of work and organisation studies

- The Conversation