Is Sexual Harassment In The Workplace Still A Thing?

As scores of young women begin new jobs post-graduation-- for many their first summer in an office-- they face a workplace where they will undoubtedly be challenged, though hopefully not by unwanted advances. Those ways in those days decades ago would strike most young women today as unbelievably shocking.
04/20/2016 07:25 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Did I call it sexual harassment? Frankly, nobody did. Up until around 1991, if you were groped, grabbed, fondled or threatened-- on the job, or on your way to getting a job-- it became your dark secret. A pat on the ass was encouragement. Nice tits was a compliment-- and fetch me some coffee was a job. Now they can all be lawsuits.
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Although 1991's Civil Rights Act, expanded the rights of employees against employers in cases of discrimination or harassment on the job, and has made such actions illegal, it doesn't mean that it doesn't happen.

That same year Anita Hill was questioned at the hearings for a new Supreme Court justice. Under oath she recounted that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her while he was her supervisor at the Department of Education and the EEOC. When questioned on why she followed him to the second job after he had already allegedly harassed her, she said she had wanted to work in the civil rights field, had no alternative job, and that "At that time, it appeared that the sexual overtures ... had ended."

Clear to many watching these nationally televised hearings, Ms. Hill felt complete humiliation. This event opened up a conversation throughout the country. In the working women's world of put up and shut up, someone had spoken out, and in a televised hearing! Whenever women did speak up about unsavory office behavior, their morality was scrutinized with microscopic examination. The man who made her job so uncomfortable, Clarence Thomas was rewarded with a seat on the Supreme Court. Anita Hill is the subject of a new HBO film starring Kerry Washington.

As scores of young women begin new jobs post-graduation-- for many their first summer in an office-- they face a workplace where they will undoubtedly be challenged, though hopefully not by unwanted advances. Those ways in those days decades ago would strike most young women today as unbelievably shocking.

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In the '70s, when it was my turn to climb subway stairs, elbow my way though crowds, and earn my first paychecks in New York City office buildings, no schooling prepared me for office "etiquette." My friends and I went to work each day-- at law offices, advertising agencies, and shipping companies-- to face the world of the grope and the sexist comments that were supposed to be taken as flattery, even though it made us feel filthy.

"Honey, get me a pen," said my boss, in a tone slow and calm enough to soothe a 5-year-old. Meanwhile, his boss was one of the grabby old men pinching my ass.

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Although the 70's were the era of women's liberation and feminism-- when Gloria Steinem spoke out about women's rights or the Equal Rights Amendment and while Mary Tyler Moore played a single, over-30 career gal on TV who was beloved by the men in her office, it was not reflected in most workplaces, which were full of misogynists.

At 23, a year into my first job as a layout artist and catalog designer, my 70-year-old boss put his hand on my knee while we were sitting together, looking at design proofs. I froze.

The hand moved up my leg.

I ignored it, wanting it to stop, but too afraid to say anything. I shifted in my seat and crossed my legs, hoping we'd both forget it by the next day. Awkward moment over-- until next week's design meeting-- an arm touch, a breast graze.

At my annual review I was told I did good work. But when I asked for a $25 a week raise, knowing that male colleagues with my experience made even more, I was promptly terminated and replaced by a younger, unsuspecting woman.

Around that time, a friend worked for a music industry executive. But it seems her boss received greater benefits, as she spent lunch hours under his desk, or in hotels, or in limousines cruising through Central Park. A single mother with two young sons, she said, "So my boss sticks his hands in my pants. I'd rather my kids have shoes than a mother who has to work a night job."

As shocking as that might be now, back then it was looked at as a viable-- though obviously undesirable-- decision. My friend had no child support, bills to pay, and a need to keep her kids in a good school.

Forty years ago a "nooner" was the way some women got to "lean in."
Even as I moved up the corporate ladder in the '90s and worked as a copywriter and project manager, and appeared as the only woman in business meetings--in my power suit --ready to lead a presentation, the expectations were there. Whenever food service staff wheeled in coffee, all the men looked at me-- as if to say, "Why aren't you serving me, and the rest of us?"

"Don't get up; don't move," said the voice in my head, in my mother's most persistent tones. My ovaries do not make me a servant is what I thought. Instead, I waited until at least two or three men served themselves and were seated again. Then, holding my head high, I walked to the coffee, filled my cup, and walked back to my seat. I still don't serve men coffee unless I'm living with them.

It's been over 30 years since that boss tried to put his hand between my legs.

We're not in that Don Draper world, where pretty women and glass ceilings kept most of us a rung or two below our true potential. But it's still hard to forget the agony suffered with dignity of Anita Hill, who was forced to defend herself in public against those who owned the guilt.

As for me, with all those pokes, prods, and pinches safely in my past-- and with the hope that young women don't endure what I and others did-- I realize the biggest difference is that the silence is ending, thanks to outspoken women like Anita Hill, Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren.

Today, every comment or action against women is being shared with a tweet or a camera to post it online. Less shame and more awareness is growing now. Yes, what others found too painful or risky to share in the past, is still a thing, but it's now being heard loud and clearly in a bid for all to be treated, finally, with dignity.

For a humorous peek at amorous adventures after 50, check out The Last Place She'd Look or visit arleneschindler.com, and follow Arlene on Facebook.

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