It was something I learned about early in life.
You’re killing it at your current job — hitting deadlines, impressing your boss, and really finding your niche — when suddenly an upper-level coworker approaches you with a lewd comment.
Your try to shrug it off and act like it’s no big deal, but then it happens again. Then it starts to happen more frequently, more aggressively. The manager that once told you that you “looked good” when you came into work starts to comment on how your outfit “makes his mind wander.”
What started out as something not so out of the ordinary has turned into full on sexual harassment.
It was something I learned about early — when a senior manager at my job at Target would make sexual comments to me when I was just 16. Older female employees would chide him for his behavior, but it never ceased.
I wish I could say my case was a rare abuse of power in the workplace, but the truth is, sexual harassment on the job is not uncommon. Nearly one in three women experience sexual harassment in the workplace, but such incidents go vastly underreported for a number of reasons — from fear of retaliation, to job security, to a difficult-to-navigate HR department (or no HR department at all), to the ever-present narrative of victim-blaming.
While 70 percent of the women experienced sexual harassment from a supervisor or employee senior to them, it’s not always a superior who is the harasser.
When Britni de la Cretaz of Boston, Mass. ran a center for chronically homeless women, her desk was guarded by a security staffer who made her feel anything but safe.
“When I would walk by him, he’d say, ‘mmm,’ or tell me that my pregnant belly made him want to go home and have sex with his girlfriend,” de la Cretaz says. Although he didn’t outrank her, he put her in a position where she didn’t feel comfortable speaking out about his behavior. “He was the person tasked with keeping me safe when there were fights or someone pulled a weapon or overdosed, all things that happened [regularly.] I didn’t want to risk not having that backup, so I didn’t say anything about it.”
While imminent danger may have kept de la Cretaz from speaking out against her harasser, there are many reasons why women feel uncomfortable raising their voices. In the professional realm particularly, speaking out could cause devastating results in regards to future employment opportunities. Such was the case for one woman who requested to remain anonymous, as she still worries about the professional repercussions of coming forward with her story.
During her MFA, she worked as the managing editor of a magazine and often hosted authors within a specific community. After hosting one author, he sent her an unsolicited picture of his erect penis. At first she ignored him, but he continued to communicate with her, often messaging her privately on Facebook or sending late night voicemails detailing his “fantasies” about her. Unfortunately, she believed it was something she simply had to ignore and endure. “If I publicize that, I could lose future jobs and publishing deals because this writing community is so small,” she says.
And all too often, when women speak out, they are met with derision or outright punishment, even when their stories are believed.
Cindy Marie Jenkins, of New York City, describes her college job in a bookstore where her coworker repeatedly harassed her and another coworker. When Jenkins came forward, she was told the offender was a friend of the store’s owner. “He couldn’t be fired, even though I wasn’t the first to complain,” Jenkins says. “Then I was let go.”
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports a fairly consistent number of sexual harassment charges filed each year — just 12,860 complaints in 2016.
Compare that with the one in three women who say they have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, and it’s clear that many of these incidents go unreported.
If I’ve learned anything writing this piece, it is that employers need to make women feel safe to come forward. While many workplaces require sexual harassment training and the public tolerance for inappropriate behavior is starting to descend (the Uber boycott and the firing of Bill O’Reilly come to mind), we still have a long way to go. Case in point: O’Reilly’s exit package.
But the true shift will come when we become willing to hear, believe, and understand women’s stories, instead of just accusing them of overreacting.
“‘He’s just giving you a compliment. He’s just being friendly. He’s just into you,’ are things we’ve all heard before,” says Tamara Pearson.
What we really need is for others to believe — and act.