I have given a lot of thought about writing this. In this piece, you will not find salacious details. And I realize that I am addressing this from a woman’s point of view.
Suffice it to say, along with all the women who are coming out to admit that they have experienced, at the very minimum, sexual harassment, and violence in the workplace, I am adding my “me too”.
Well before I started working, my Mom told me about her job as a secretary in New York City. She was a newlywed, working to support my Dad in his senior year in college. Her boss approached her when he returned to the office from the restroom and with his fly unzipped asked her to “help” him.
My sweet, innocent Mom was horrified by his request, but was able to let him know in no uncertain terms that she would not tolerate any more of his behavior. Fortunately, he was mortified and she kept her job. I wonder now if he was unique in backing off from his request or if the culture of wanton harassment had not been fully developed.
I remember feeling so horrible that my Mom was exposed to such an incident.
I discovered from my first series of job interviews that shocking behavior like this was more normal than not. I was asked the most embarrassing questions during those initial interviews after I graduated from college and was ready to enter a professional workforce.
You may say, well, you should never have responded to those questions! Well, then, you just don’t understand. That was pretty much the norm. I needed to work. I became numb in interviews, knowing that this was the only way I could get a job.
For too much of my professional life—and I have worn many hats in my career—I have had a large number of incidents of either unwanted sexual advances or of obscene workplace violence. All of this came, of course, with the threat of loss of employment. And I lost jobs that I am sure were for no other cause than my push back against atrocious behavior on the part of my employers or so-called “colleagues.”
U.S. Representative Annie Kuster tells of the time when, as a 23-years old staffer on Capitol Hill, she attended a meeting which included renowned heart surgeon Dr. Christian Bernard. During that meeting, Dr. Bernard took the opportunity to grope her under her skirt.
During an interview on the subject recently (and normally I would provide a link to the exact verbiage, but I cannot find it) she reflects that now she wished she had spoken up because those of us who did not speak up decades ago allowed abuses to escalate to the point it is today. Well, not so fast, Annie. There were no means by which I could have gotten help at any point when the sexual, degrading, or violent behavior occurred in my career, let alone when I was in my twenties. And you, Annie, could not either.
And with rare exceptions, HR does not care. They instead side with the abuser, who is most likely to be your superior.
There still is no way out. Sure, fire one guy. But this behavior comes from an accepted culture—whether it be in the media, in politics, at educational institutions, or in corporations.
“Boys will be boys,” was the chatter around trump’s (lower case intended) bragging about how he grabs and abuses women. Well, if you know such a “boy”—a male that is still living with his parents or guardians and you find out that he speaks in such a manner—he needs to have his butt seriously kicked. Now. Locker room talk that is OK for grown men? No. Never.
By allowing “boys will be boys” and “you know, it’s locker room talk” for adult men, we demean men. It suggests that boys and men have such little impulse control that nothing better can be expected of them. Let’s not let the demeaning of women “forgive” men their “little” indiscretions by not expecting any better of them.
My takeaway from all this? Forget these little mandatory sensitivity training sessions that are trotted annually for all employees to attend or review. It does not work. What needs to be corrected will take years, and will need the consistent beheading of the perpetrators to occur until the culture has changed.
As a side note, I took one of those “mandatory” annual classes required by my workplace. We had to select one online video from several choices. I selected to view a video on workplace violence.
The creators of the workplace violence video were a group who studied horrific violence—such as workplace shootings—and studied in retrospect the indicators that were present that were the warning signs that violence was escalating. In the video, they presented scenarios that they deemed as severe warnings. I watched the scenarios in horror. The workplace violence demonstrated in the video was nothing compared to what I was exposed to on a daily basis. Nothing. So much for the annual training. I worked for a company that trotted this video without taking to heart what the video was about.
Here is a sampling of what I have experienced: I have been trapped in an office, in an elevator, in a stairwell by men and have been the target of unwanted sexual behavior. I have received phone threats. I have been stalked to my home. I have had heavy office items (like laptops) thrown across a room at me.
I hope you get the idea. There have been times over the course of my professional work life that I have been physically ill each morning because of having to face a horrible workplace. I have gone to work terrified.
Let me make this clear: people knew what was going on, and did not help me. And when I reported these incidents, I was threatened with the loss of my job.
People know now. They know that there is dirty stuff in their ranks.
One suggestion I heard that makes a little sense to me is that every organization create is a policy booklet that outlines SPECIFICALLY behavior that will not be tolerated and each employee has to sign the policy statement every year. Perhaps a signature will carry some weight. I also suggest that for managers as well as HR staff who ignore policy violations that there be a financial cost. I have not researched this—I do not know if it can be done, but people usually think a bit when it costs them money.
I am not holding out much hope that things will change. Sure, there will be a cleansing of the dirty ranks now that it is a hot topic. The cultural shift, however, will take constant pressure by all of us—men and women—to not allow such behavior. Is this possible?
My immediate hope is that more women will run for office in local, state, and federal government and with their voices, will put some serious controls on this outbreak. Without that, I have no confidence in change. The voices, despite their significant numbers, will be ignored.