Sexual Harassment: Be Honest with Yourself
Never have I ever felt targeted by man in the workplace; this has been my mantra in the face of wide discussion about unwanted sexual attention experienced by wage earning females in the workplace. I am a strong woman, and I never wanted to put myself at a disadvantage by acknowledging that it may have happened to me. I never wanted to portray myself as a victim by admitting to having experienced untoward behavior; to confess that it has happened to me seems akin to admitting defeat.
Although I have continually denied the experience of sexual harassment, some things have come to pass in recent months that have caused me to change my tune. First, a strong woman I admire told me she has been the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, and that when she discussed her experience it improved her situation and she found a community of people that made her feel stronger. Second, an incident took place that I cannot brush off or ignore so easily. You would think it would take something drastic to make me break my silence, but it was an insult or dismissal of my intelligence because I am a girl that made me realize I have been lying to myself all these years. Third, I realized that speaking out might not make me a victim any more than staying silent; in fact, it might make me more powerful.
Once I began to review my experiences over the years, I realized that I have been making excuses for the bad behavior exhibited by men for years. Like the time my boss told me he would rather see me come to work in a burka than the clothes I wore to work. At the time I told myself he was right and perhaps I could clean it up a bit. But in hindsight that comment was so out of line because what I was wearing was no different than what any of the other male workers were wearing at the time; it was just different because it was on my body.
Now, most of my negative interactions were not carried out against me by my bosses or even by my coworkers. But the customers and industry executives visiting from other places were a different story.
What is it about male customers who think they can project their sexual desires on to female employees in a place of business? When I worked for a local distributor there was one man who would send me emails I was very embarrassed to read, and yet in the body of the same email he would include his product order, so it is not like I could just send it to the garbage can. At another local establishment where you pay money to belong to the facility, I feel preyed upon by some of the male members. The constant remarks about my wardrobe, or my level of fitness, or the forceful demands to come over and talk to them and tell them about my day and my life, it all makes me so uncomfortable. One man was even so bold as to kiss me on the cheek during a member appreciation event. I don’t want to make a scene because the revenue of this business is based on membership and if I start chasing off members then it might put my job in jeopardy, but at the same time, how do people think this kind of behavior is acceptable?
When it comes to working with men in my profession, most of what I experience is a general dismissal of my abilities and my level of intelligence, all because I am a woman. It was one of these such experiences that made me realize I needed to speak up. My company installed a lot of new technical equipment in recent months which I am responsible for and fully capable of running. But when it came time to do our walk through and learn the new machines, the technician talked over me, around me, and down to me; I was the only woman in the room, and none of the men received the same treatment. After listening him to defer to the men in the room for more than twenty minutes as though they would be the people responsible for the maintenance of the new equipment, I finally had to set him straight and tell him it was my department and I would be responsible for everything therein. He changed his tune immediately, and afterward he was embarrassed and apologetic, but it never should have happened in the first place. It is still so acceptable in our culture that men who are otherwise good to the core of their being probably don’t realize they are engaging in sexist and discriminatory behavior.
Now, I do not consider myself a feminist; I am not the type to jump in with trendy social rights movements. But I do believe that everyone deserves a basic level of respect just because they are a human being and they are working hard, and they are doing the best they can. It should not matter if the individual you are talking to in the work place is a man or a woman; you should never make insensitive comments to anyone, you should never advance upon an employee in a business when they have made it clear your attention is not welcome, and you should treat people with respect and deference. This is just basic human decency!
Men and women ARE different, I don’t want to get into that argument, and there are considerations that women require that men do not and vice versa, but the bottom line is that if a man would not make an off-color comment to another man, or if he would not treat a man in a sexually inappropriate way, then he should not make those comments or behave in that way towards a woman either. The basic standards of good behavior in the work place should be the same regardless of gender.
If you feel as though you have been a victim of sexual harassment, be honest with yourself. It does not make you stronger to keep your silence. It does not make you weak to admit that it happened; don’t push it under the rug or ignore it any longer.
Do what you think is best to move forward from the incident. Don’t feel pressured to respond in one way or another as you try to process what happened and find justice for yourself in the wake of bad behavior. If it will help you to talk it out with a friend and then just move on, that is fine. If you feel you are brave enough to report it and that it is serious enough to take it up the ladder, then make that decision and take the steps to get it done. Just remember that if it was serious and you do not say anything it might happen to another woman down the line; sometimes you are not just looking out for yourself, you are looking out for legions of women who might be victimized by the same man.
Support other women and come together in the fight to extend basic human decency towards women in the workplace. It is just one hurdle that women must overcome on the road to reaching equality, but it is an important step. We don’t need to demand special treatment, we just want to feel as though we are safe and that we can come to work and get our job done without being objectified.
It does not make you a victim to acknowledge or admit that something happened to you. In fact, it makes you a hero. Some of the strongest women have dealt with the same experiences you might have had and they are stronger now for having stood up for themselves. Now, we can all come together as once voice and with our combined strength we can begin to change the world.