This is not intended as a political post. This is about my experience as a woman and how I have learned to deal with — and shut down — sexual harassment. It so happens that the media provides some ample examples recently. I have purposely left out the names of candidates so as to avoid alienating any reader.
Every once in a while, examples of sexual harassment make the national media. It is interesting to see people respond to them. Sometimes the examples caught on tape or relayed in court are so shocking that they impact our collective consciousness. These are the times when a sea change can occur. I think news like this is a good thing. Why? Because when bad behavior becomes so public, sometimes it makes real change. We can only hope.
There was Anita Hill. When Clarence Thomas was a candidate for the Supreme Court, a brave woman named Anita Hill came forward to testify about how Thomas had treated her in the workplace. It was troubling to hear her relay how Thomas had treated her. It was tame by comparison to some of the recent news caught on tape, but it was equally disgusting. Anita Hill was very brave and told her story. She took enormous criticism. I can’t imagine how much courage it took for her to take action. This was before the days of sexual harassment protections or workplace training. I remember many people condemning her. Clarence Thomas still made it to the Supreme Court, but I think men everywhere realized that their “workplace banter” could cause offense and could be considered wrong and harassing. Some reading this post might not have been born yet, so you should read more about her story if you have a moment.
High profile examples of bad behavior sometimes can teach larger lessons. Let’s hope this is one of them. I’ve had my own experiences which I’ve endured over many years, but for the first time a few years ago, I took action.
Like many women, this is part of life in the workforce. A high profile person came out this week saying, “If women can’t handle sexual harassment in the workplace, they should get another job… they should go teach kindergarten”. Sadly, it even happens in elementary schools, so there really is no relief.
Mid-1980s. In College, I was fortunate to attend a woman’s college. There I could focus on my academics during the day and had plenty of fun outside of class. There were male colleges near us where we had friends and went for social occasions. I had few bad situations; however, surrounded by a rather polite group of men, there were usually a few “big brother” like friends who immediately set the person straight. We (my friends and I) also traveled in packs. We didn’t leave anyone alone anywhere and made sure when we left that all were accounted for. We looked out for each other. I was lucky, it seems there is a worse culture in some colleges now exposing women to very harassing behavior.
Late-1980s: When I was first out of college in the late 80s, I had frequent challenges in the workplace and just living my life. This was before the days of legal protections and there was (and is) a culture of harassment. I remember typing and having someone’s hands slide from my shoulders to down the front of my blouse. Not just once, many times (even after trying to lean forward, turn myself around, ask the person to stop). I positioned a mirror on my desk so that I could see if someone could come up behind me and I would snap to attention facing anyone who arrived. I remember being called to an office only to find no one there and all of the windows covered (I’ll spare you what happened after that). I remember being asked to sit a particular way while taking notes in an office so that the supervisor could “get a better view of my legs”. And so on and so on….
I remember speaking to my parents about it and they made suggestions about dressing differently, not being the last one in the office, and everything they could think of to help. This was the Laura Ashley fashion period where high-neck lace blouses were actually in fashion, so there wasn’t much more I could do to dress conservatively. Some people said to me to “not take it personally” or “this is what happens working in a ‘man’s world'” or “boys will be boys” and so on. It wasn’t what I was wearing, I now realize, it was the mindset of the person who thought he could treat me that way.
At that time, there were no avenues (at least that I knew about) to make it stop. There were no workplace trainings (as is now customary) to let me know what I did not have to tolerate and to put harassers on notice. In some cases, I did change jobs.
1990s: When I had my first fundraising job, I stayed with a woman in New England at a charming home on the coast. Somewhere in the middle of the night, I realized someone was in my room. Then, the person actually leapt onto my bed (it was pitch black) and began groping me. I grabbed whatever I could find (an alarm clock) and started hitting him with it which made him stop. Shaking violently to the point that I could hardly zip my suitcase or hold my keys, I left in the middle of the night and left a note for the person. I got a note later saying, “I want to apologize to my son. He was drunk and went into the wrong bedroom.” Funny thing about that, he didn’t live there and knew I was staying there as he had stopped by earlier during our visit.
I began to see that some men just assumed that their attentions would be received — or didn’t care what the recipient thought.
Mid-1990s: Working for a large association in Washington, DC as a meeting planner, I traveled often. On one trip to Colorado, the Broadmoor, I had just returned from a work reception late and heard the sound of a key. In walked a bank president who had attended the meeting with a big grin on his face and holding a bottle of wine and two glasses. “I got the key from the front desk,” he exclaimed. The assumption that I would be open to such an intrusion bothered me as much as having to deal with the situation to begin with. I had experienced countless incidents of groping, fondling, comments over the course of that job, but never this far of an extreme. I managed to get him out of the room (I led the way) and back to the lobby where I confided in a colleague who helped me. I changed rooms (and now I travel with a small rubber wedge which I stick under the door in addition to closing as many latches available).
As many women faced in this situation, I worried that I would actually have some negative job repercussion for not being responsive to the harassment. At that time, as with most women, I went about my work and remained silent. There was no ear to listen.
Late-1990s: When I was six months pregnant with my second child working at the National Cathedral, I had a particularly egregious situation with a supervisor who had scheduled my performance review (conveniently late in the day after most people had left). After shutting the door and placing himself between me and the exit, he physically approached me and pushed me down onto a sofa – and then onto the floor – and started kissing me. I was so horrified that I couldn’t even move initially, but managed to push him onto the ground and bolt for the door. He tried coming after me and actually grabbed a hold of a cardigan sweater I was wearing that I recall stretched so much that it never regained its shape. In that case, I confided in one of the priests who was a friend of mine. Within hours the leader of the Cathedral, Dean Nathan Baxter, had phoned me at home and assured me the matter would be dealt with (it turns out, this wasn’t the perpetrator’s first infraction). The (former) supervisor never returned to work. I didn’t know such protection was possible, but I was grateful.
I began to find my voice. I realized I did not have to take it.
1998 was the year of the Monica Lewinsky scandal when the intern in the White House had a relationship with the then President Bill Clinton. We heard about her blue dress, her underwear, and heard things on the national news for many weeks that most had never heard discussed in workplaces, much less on national television. What this situation really emphasized is that even if a relationship is consensual, when one person has authority over the other, it is inappropriate. This wasn’t something discussed at the time. This power dynamic became something more workplaces discussed and it began to make its way into workplace policies. It is inappropriate for someone in a position of authority to exert his or her control over another — even if consensual: A boss over a subordinate, a teacher over a student, a coach over a player, a president over an intern….
What this situation taught America is that even if a relationship is consensual, when one person has authority over the other, it is inappropriate.
Eventually, in the 1990s and early 2000s, sexual harassment suits started being filed and men finally started realizing that this “locker room banter” and “joking around” wasn’t something they could do without consequence. Anita Hill’s testimony at the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings suddenly thrust workplace harassment into the spotlight. Unfortunately, in my observation, those who most needed this training – the executive level staff – lead attorneys in law firms – the ones who thought they didn’t have to attend such things – were the ones who needed it the most and then continued to behave as they had before. My theory is that some people, particularly senior, high-level people have not ever had formal sexual harassment training – or diversity training – etc. and so they truly don’t realize how offensive they are being. It just seems “normal” to speak about a woman sexually. You can read a post I wrote on this here.
What I learned from these trainings is that I DON’T HAVE TO PUT UP WITH IT. And, most importantly, supervisors now had a DUTY to report such behavior or they faced consequence.
Current time. Once it happened in front of my children, I had to act. I took legal and professional action seeking relief from sexual harassment. I was successful.
The harassment took place over many weekends. High above the playing field and the locker rooms of the university where I work, tailgating is its own sport. Most people go to have fun with their families and share the collegial college spirit that accompanies games. Most people don’t go to these events and expect to be harassed. Unfortunately, that was my experience. It began with suggestive comments (which I always brushed off and tried to ignore), it progressed to making lewd comments in front of this person’s friends and in front of my husband (we both asked him to stop numerous times), it progressed to commenting about my outfits, my body parts, etc. (which I again asked him to stop and that neither my husband nor I appreciated it). Then, one weekend, with my children with me, the harassment resumed. This time, he actually came up behind me blocking me from moving between him and my car and he made a disgusting comment about what he would like to see me do — while my younger son sat in the back seat overhearing this. My husband and I both reached out limit.
This time, I decided to do something.
I asked the University (athletics) that this person be moved from where he parked for tailgating and they said they couldn’t do anything “without proof”. It was a classic case of “your word against his” (even though I had my husband as a witness with dates and times of the incidents). They said I would need to obtain a police report for them to do anything (in retrospect, I’m glad they didn’t assist right away as I probably wouldn’t have followed through with a legal solution). So, I went to the University police who directed me to go to the nearby courthouse to obtain a peace order (which was granted). At the hearing, the individual admitted to his behavior, wanted to apologize, said “he’d been drinking” (as if this excused the behavior), and said that he was just “kidding around” (a.k.a. “locker room banter”). It was obvious he didn’t find much wrong with what he had been doing. He agreed to the terms of the peace order. Then, the criminal charges were served (you don’t get a peace order without a criminal justification, so simultaneous criminal charges are filed, but that is between the State and the individual). I got calls from someone representing him imploring me to drop the issue because “he is a senior executive at a bank” and “can’t afford to have this on his record”. I told them he should have thought about that before he spent his weekends harassing me – and that the call the person was making violated the terms of the peace order (I filed another peace order in the county in which I lived so that the breech was on record). The call emboldened me to continue, knowing that his behavior was probably not isolated to the weekends. The whole process wasn’t easy and it was time consuming. Upon investigating the incidents, my University workplace deemed that this was harassment and responded in a professional manner which I appreciated.
At this point in my life, I believe I have a duty to speak out when harassment occurs and make sure that I set the person straight. If I don’t, I know there is a woman after me who will suffer as a result.
Thankfully, I have a respectful husband who defends me. I’ve learned a lot from him. He doesn’t tolerate men joking around him about women. I’ve watched him shut down “locker room banter” many times. He doesn’t even like hearing it in a movie or on television (he’ll change the channel). He has empowered me to draw a firmer line in what I will tolerate and has helped me take action when I decided I had reached my limit.
Fortunately, there are laws to not only protect women from such behavior, but also show them the path forward to obtain relief (particularly if their attempts have failed). Sometimes you have to take action in order to stop someone. Hopefully the threat of such actions can keep other people in line (who behave as if they can speak or act any way they wish).
I don’t buy the “boys will be boys” comment. I don’t buy “locker room banter”. I’ve shared stories about these things with my sons so that they know how women feel — and so that they can shut down this type of discussion when they hear it. It isn’t just women who are insulted by hearing sexist comments….
Insisting that it is normal to joke about sexual assault and harassment is also insulting to men.
Watching the recent news that has become public this week doesn’t surprise me at all. It just was one of millions of conversations that go on day in and day out. However, this time it was caught on tape — and America was horrified. Hopefully, the women subjected to this will speak out and take action. The legal system, it seems, is about the only thing that gets the attention of people set in their ways. There are some good things that could come out from this week — one of them is a sea change in how men speak about and behave around women.
Thanks for reading.
P.S. To dismiss sensitivity about sexual harassment as “political correctness” is to perpetuate behavior that is offensive and illegal.
Stop harassing behavior (scripts and behavior suggestions).
Your rights if sexually harassed.
Stacey brings over twenty-five years of fundraising and nonprofit management with organizations in higher education, independent schools, faith-based organizations, social services, and the arts. She currently serves as Senior Director of Development for the University of Maryland. Enthusiasm, innovation, and passion are hallmarks of her work resulting in over $100 million raised for annual operations, capital campaigns, comprehensive campaigns, endowments, planned gifts, and special events. Responsible for raising the largest gift in the history of the University of Maryland to establish the Brendan Iribe Center for Computer Science and Innovation. She is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), is affiliated (through the University of Maryland) with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and holds a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) certification from CFRE International. Stacey graduated from Sweet Briar College and has completed graduate work at University of Maryland University College.
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