If you’ve ever been employed, you’ve sat through those videos from the 80s or signed handbooks that outline the sexual harassment policies of the company. But even if you’ve heard the jargon and the promises that nothing bad will happen if you report harassment, it’s not always that easy.
I know. I’ve been a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace.
And not just one workplace, either. I’ve been the victim of sexual harassment in every single company I’ve ever worked for in my adult life.
Looking back on the span of my career, I see that now. Those little comments or tasks that seemed harmless back then are clear in hindsight. Because as I navigated through my career, the occurrences became increasingly harmful, and far more obvious.
I want to make something very clear that I just now came to understand myself – sexual harassment isn’t just physical. It’s any kind of harassment related to your gender. This may be physical, emotional, psychological, etc.
It started on my very first day of college when my professor told me that women aren’t suited to work in the industry I had chosen.
When I landed one of my first real-world jobs, I became the only woman in my department. I was talented, enthusiastic, and not yet jaded by the corporate world. In short, I was an asset. But, I didn’t notice how the seemingly innocent jabs of my male coworkers destroyed the reputation I’d so carefully built. “Finally, doing what she made for,” they’d nudge each other when I picked up a stray piece of trash. They’d make comments about certain shades of lipstick that “they couldn’t resist.” Lipstick shades I happened to be wearing.
But, I needed that job. And maybe I needed to work my way up by constantly picking up the trash my coworkers threw on the floor in front of me or wearing pink lipstick so I was prettier to look at. Right?
At my next job, I climbed the rung of the harassment ladder when my boss, a boisterous man who made it known that he didn’t like to hire women for what he claimed were “obvious reasons,” publicly criticized me for taking a day off before my wedding. “This is why women are paid less than men,” he yelled, “because they need time off to get married and have babies.” Later, he added a physical element to his harassment when he flew off the handle about things that were out of my control.
His nose touching my nose, he screamed in my face, calling me the most crass words in existence. Think of the worst words you can think of. Yep, those are them. To add insult to injury, he heckled me when I started to tear up, laughing: “Are you gonna cry, little girl?”
When I finally threatened a lawsuit against him, he laughed in my face and informed me that he already had sexual harassment cases in court. What’s one more?
He was the boss, and there was no HR department, so who could I go to?
I put up with it. I needed that job. And I convinced myself I must have been doing something wrong to illicit such behavior. Right?
When I escaped that job, I moved right onto the next rung of the ladder. There was the blatantly sexist dress code, the many times I was openly discriminated against when men got to do things I wasn’t allowed to. And of course, the meeting with executives – many of whom were women – when the nursing room was mentioned. It wasn’t secure, and was often occupied by non-nursing men. As a mom who used the room, I listened as the executives joked about breastfeeding. “Just because it’s the cheaper, easier way to feed a baby doesn’t mean we need to encourage it,” one said. “It’s disgusting,” another pointed out.
At that same job, I watched as one of the company leaders walked around, tickling women. They all giggled, and I remember thinking, “that will never happen to me.”
Until it did. One day, that man came up behind me and grabbed my hips. He squeezed and didn’t let go. I wanted to report him, but I knew doing so would get me fired.
And, I needed that job. So, I decided I must have done something to attract that kind of attention. Right?
Ladies, we are not different. A man wouldn’t work his tail off in college to land a reputable job, only to pick up the trash and field comments about his attire because he thinks he needed that job.
He certainly wouldn’t allow someone to get in his face, cuss him out, and tell him he should be paid less because his body happens to have the ability to carry a baby just because he needed that job.
A man wouldn’t raise his hand in a meeting. Let someone talk over him. Or, spend all morning wondering if he did the wrong thing by wearing a cologne that attracted attention or a shirt that “left too much to the imagination” all because he needed that job.
I promise you, no job in the world is so magical that you should endure this kind of behavior. You are a strong woman. You have made a name for yourself and your career. There is no corporate ladder worth climbing if you have to get there by letting men make comments about your body. There is no promotion so great that men should be able to touch you to make it happen. There is no amount of money in the world that should allow you to eliminate the progress other women have made by tolerating comments about your capabilities.
This problem isn’t confined to Corporate America, though I think it runs rampant there. If you’re experiencing anything that makes you uncomfortable in the workplace, report it immediately. No more of the “I need this job” or “I’ll get in trouble” nonsense that I myself am guilty of.
We are better than that. And, we deserve more than that.
We don’t need any job. What we need is for each other to stand up, speak up, and put an end to all forms of workplace harassment.