I am not uncommon in today’s world. I am one of those women interested in the plight of other women, thinking about the myriad of struggles women face as we attempt to pursue a career in any of a number of male-dominated workplaces. As a recent “twentysomething” university graduate, I worry about achieving professional excellence and, skipping right over worries about meeting the right guy, wonder how to balance my career and caring for my future children. It’s a short jump to worries about paying for my children’s collegiate education, followed by the unsettling thought: What if my daughters have to deal with what I experience in workplace sexual harassment?
Today, I faced up to the fact that unwanted caresses of my hair, neck, back, and butt; “jokes” about watching me model lingerie; and unwanted Facebook chats from a married man asking where I am (winky face emojis are forever ruined) are not part of “paying my dues,” getting a good letter of recommendation, and moving on in my career. As a young, female student intern, these overtures from the older, professionally successful (even renowned), married or engaged men in my workplace are everyday occurrences. I spent almost two years responding with sarcasm, deliberate misunderstanding of overtly sexual innuendos, nervous laughter while quickly walking away, and glances at my female mentor wondering why she didn’t step in to stop the bullies.
That is what these men – middle aged, wealthy, and bored – are: the schoolyard bully. Rather than picking on the undersized geek, they prey on the ambitious young female in their midst. I am a smart woman – I know how to analyze, memorize, and prioritize as I need to in my studies and in my responsibilities. What I do not know is how to react when I am diminished to a sexual object. Only recently did my attempts at “sarcastically witty” lecturing responses to one of the bullies result in his comments about how “You’re so damn hot” occasionally finishing with “…oh, and you’re smart too! Of course.”
I know of course, the resources available to me – the HR office, reference to the sexual harassment policy, investigations of my complaint…but this is all so much easier on paper. As a student in a competitive field, I worry about alienating the very men from whom so much of my anguish stems. I cannot unroot the work they have contributed to the field, nor can I possibly make the public see what I see behind the scenes at the office every day. Charm and occasional compliments are one thing; unwanted overtures and sexual comments from men that are in roles of leadership, superior to me, are another. Not being taken seriously by my supervisors, reduced in their eyes to a sexual object, I worry that other adults will not take my concerns and worries seriously either. I wasn’t raped nor was I violently sexually assaulted. The occasional light ass grab and comment about “ogling” me is just part of life for a young woman, right?
I find myself sympathizing with what I call the “really pretty” women – I know I’m not bad looking, but I’m no Kate Upton either. I console myself with the thought that because I’m not that pretty, this can’t be the worst of workplace harassment. Despite these trains of thought, I’ve stopped wearing the business casual dresses and skirts I bought with my mom because unless I wear a pair of baggy slacks, I am indeed ogled. Sorry Mom, I can’t wear the clothes you bought me, even though the hemline goes to the knee (a recurring battle in my high school years) because the men I work under make lewd comments about how I look in them. And sorry Dad, that I feel I failed you as a daughter by allowing these men to speak to me and treat me this way. I just don’t know what to do. I feel powerless.
So what did I do about it today? I spoke to my female mentor. She was open, concerned, and asked what I wanted her to do. One of the men harassing me will be spoken to by his boss (male, but one of the “good ones” who keeps his conduct professional). The other truly needs, in my and my young female coworkers’ opinions, a lot of therapy. My heart goes out to both of these men – each of them a father, a husband, a son – and I wonder what happened to make them so blind to their own cruelty. Successful though they are professionally, and in a profession that prides itself on compassion, these men have lost the most basic respect for women and for themselves. I don’t know what to do. I know more needs to be done. A simple swat on the wrist won’t do it. I want an apology. I want an explanation. I want this to stop, everywhere. The bullies need to step down, and I must learn to step up.