We wish that our call for sexual harassment stories came back with no replies. But instead, so many of our readers had experiences to share. Unfortunately, sexual harassment is a national crisis, especially in fields dominated by men. It can derail careers and cause serious emotional harm, and victims can be any gender, any age, and work in any industry. Here are some of your stories, along with one from DailyWorth’s founder and CEO.
1. I’m a young female assistant in the comedy world, and sexual harassment is completely ingrained into my work’s culture — it’s simply how people interact. My office is almost all male, with very few women in positions of power. I decided to strike a blow against something that felt like the final straw a few weeks back: the fact that I get called “babe” all the time. Maybe they don’t mean anything by it, but no one calls men by pet names, especially not a name typically used for romantic partners or children (“bro” doesn’t have the same condescension as “babe”). It seems like they’re saying, “You work here, but not as much as I do.”
So I finally got up the nerve to tell a man 40 years my senior to please call me by my name. The response was “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Calm down! Whoa! Okay!” That was followed by peals of laughter.
Now, when I walk into the writer’s room, they all say, “Okay, everyone shut up! Rena’s here! Stop joking!” So my two options are: shut up and be talked down to, or say something and be the hysterical, overly sensitive buzzkill. It’s maddening. And this was such a small thing — I can’t even imagine ever having to come forward over something more severe. It’s really scary.
2. I was at an on-campus internship, and a well-respected leader in my field fondled me during what should have been an innocent hug. After I told the administration, five other women came forward to say the same had happened to them — and worse. But this man held the key to their graduation from the program, so they had been silent until he’d been suspended upon my telling the administration.
Then I learned that other women had been through the same thing in the past, and he had been suspended before for this behavior.
Shortly after I came forward, he was removed from the school, and because he was the main reason people went there, the school shut down.
I went through a period of thinking, WTF is wrong with me that I attracted this kind of experience? But knowing that other women didn’t have to deal with more of that from him made me feel better and like I wasn’t crazy.
3. My coworker is clearly into me and started making passes at me as soon as I joined the company. Once I rejected him, he started openly insulting me in the office, in front of everyone. I’ve sat down and told him to cut it out, and he just laughs. Then he tries to get me to go out with him again. The more I say no, the meaner he gets. He’ll respond to group emails announcing projects with, “Let’s hope Lauren doesn’t screw it up.” Everyone takes it as playful ribbing, but I’m tired of it, and tired of my boss not doing something about it.
4. We have an IT guy who was always super friendly to me. But once, when we were alone in a room together, he told me that he and his wife are swingers and that he swings both ways, in a way that felt less like an authentic share and more like an invitation. Since then, he has more than once commented on my ass while I've been at the urinal in the bathroom. Our lights go out in the bathroom sometimes, so I always avoid getting stuck in there with him. Unfortunately, our Internet connection falls apart all the time and I feel the need to tolerate him so that he'll help me out quickly. Most of the women at my job have a story about him, too.
5. I worked as a chef for years, and my experience is less about one specific incident and more about a pervasive culture that tells you that if you’re going to fit in, you have to play by the boys' rules: constant sexual innuendo, jokes, and language.
Somehow I had gone from a really feminist women's college where we were learning about the power of language and naming, where you were deeply offended if someone used "girls" instead of "women," to a place where I wouldn't bat an eye if a cook came in and said "Hey, baby." I’d just tell myself: That’s the culture. He doesn't mean it as an insult. But if you tried to take a stand (which one of my female cooks did), you became persona non grata really quickly.
A few years ago, I had this moment where I realized that I was working at a restaurant owned by two women, and still we let this culture flourish. The idea was that as long as it didn't extend to inappropriate touching, it was okay — that somehow all of those rules didn't apply to kitchens. But I found it unsettling that we had become so inured to the daily onslaught, the general lack of professionalism, that we didn't even think it was something that we could (or should) try to change.
6. I worked as a freelance art director right out of college and hustled to establish myself in a new city. I landed what I thought was an awesome client — a new company making environmentally friendly yoga gear. I worked directly with the CEO, and we had almost daily phone calls.
A few weeks in, he told me about the problems in his marriage. He told me about how fatherhood was difficult and not what he had envisioned. He asked me about my personal life and fixated on how young I was. At first I thought I was handling it and that I was in control, but it became obvious that I wasn’t. He started saying lewd things on the phone — never over email or text. When I supervised a photoshoot for his website, he directed the photographer to take candid photos of me, even though I was clearly not one of the models. I didn’t even know about the pictures until later, when he told me how beautiful I looked in the photos he was going to keep for himself.
Looking back, he’d clearly done this before. He was so careful to keep things off the record. I was so young, and I was a freelancer with no boss. I desperately needed the money — money that I now realize was a pittance, and I can’t believe what I went through for it. It still makes me sick, and I want to go back in time and tell 22-year-old me that nothing is worth the feeling, and that he’s a garbage asshole for taking advantage of me.
7. I hired a CEO coach who harassed me. I was in a contract with him, so I was paying my harasser $1,000 a month.
I didn't know how to get out of it. I was scared to file anything against him because I was worried about how it would make me look as a business owner. And I didn't want the entrepreneurial community to talk about me or think I was playing the gender card. It’s hard to be a female business owner anyway, and I didn’t want to make my life even harder.
— Jenna, 24
8. I was a couple of weeks into a new job and excited to attend my first group dinner with my new colleagues. But my excitement faded to disappointment — and then turned into disbelief — once the conversation began. Before we could even order our drinks, a few of the men at the table began to rate the women on the restaurant staff on a scale of 1 to 10, based on their looks. As the night went on and the wine flowed, they began commenting on and rating any woman in the restaurant. They stopped other conversations to say things like: “Check out the rack on the blonde over there!”
I was horrified, but hesitated to say anything since I was new to the job, and instead excused myself.
After the dinner, I expressed my discomfort with the situation to our group president, one of the few women sitting at the table that night. She had to be as disturbed as I was, right? Hopefully she’d tell me it wasn’t a normal occurrence, and maybe she’d even support me in reporting the incident to HR. But that was not the case.
Instead, she brushed it off, saying that the men in question — two of them my superiors — were just having fun. “They’re ‘good ol’ boys,’” she said, telling me to have a sense of humor about it. She also discouraged reporting anything.
This happened right around of the economic downturn of 2008, and I was afraid of losing my job, so I didn’t report the incident. I sat through several more dinners like that one, sometimes speaking up or leaving when I felt uncomfortable. I got a new job as soon as possible, which was not soon enough.
— Sylvia, 35
9. My coworker harassed me for years, sitting across from me in our open office. He crossed a line on his first day, when he told me about his history of depression, abusing pills, and of getting violent. Not long after, he told me stories of how he'd been accused of sexual harassment in previous jobs, which in his mind was all a misunderstanding.
On an almost daily basis, he'd talk about his penis. And I always laughed it off, feeling uncomfortable and disgusted.
Soon he started showing me and my coworkers photos of his sexual conquests, holding his phone in my face. He'd ask for my advice, what gifts to buy them, what characters to play in bed with them. He'd tell me how attractive I was, how lucky I was to be young, how fit I was, and how I could wear whatever I wanted.
I was too embarrassed for years to speak up, because I felt like it was my fault that I had let it go on for so long, and that by not speaking up I'd given him permission.
10. I was raising investor capital for DailyWorth, and a major venture capitalist took me to dinner in New York City. After I had one glass of wine, he insisted I do tequila shots. I declined. He pressured me harder. I realized he was trying to get me intoxicated, using his power and authority to take advantage of me. His agenda was pretty obvious. I remember it clearly because it was the night before my son’s first day of kindergarten. I kept telling him that I still had to get home to Philadelphia to be with my son, but he disregarded my plea, saying it would be better if I stayed the night. He was fine with the idea of taking advantage of me, and with me missing out on this once-in-a-lifetime event.
This was four years ago. DailyWorth was a tiny operation. I had very little influence and even fewer options. Fortunately, I got away before this man got what he wanted, but I still dissolve into a mix of rage and utter sadness today, just thinking about how relentless he was.
—Amanda Steinberg, DailyWorth Founder & CEO, 38