In light of the Roger Ailes allegations at Fox News people ask how women can be sexually harassed and not only stay in contact with the alleged perpetrator, but also speak well of them? A 2015 study found that one in three women have been sexually harassed and that 71 percent did not report it. That's staggering until one takes a closer look.
When Marsha Blackburn was rumored to be in consideration as a running mate for Donald Trump -- to bring in the women's vote -- she was asked by BBC's Katy Kay, after viewing Megan Kelly's question to Trump: "You call women you don't like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals....", how she (Blackburn) dealt with the language Trump used. The Congresswoman from Tennessee replied: "You say, 'I wish you had not done that.' Whether it was working in a male dominated profession, or here in Washington, you have people who say inappropriate things. I think most women are like me, you've heard enough of it through the years that you don't excuse it, and you don't embrace it, but you push it aside." BBC July 7, 2016
One might call it the Anita Hill effect, the double bind women are placed in when verbally harassed with sexual advances and innuendo in the work place. It's distressing. It effects one's sense of self, but you need the job, you need the money, and until a better opportunity comes along, you endure. You are going to need that person for a reference for your next job. Telling a prospective employer that you left because you were being sexually harassed does not make you an attractive hire.
In fact many women who earned pioneer status -- the first through the door into all-male domains - are reluctant to mention this harassment that was seen as 'harmless fun', by men, but created a climate of fear and discomfort for women. The language bandied about by some men was seen as 'boys being boys', and 'business as usual'. A throwback to the good old days when men ruled the halls of power and didn't have to temper dialogue with political correctness. And strangely, it is not unusual in these situations, for women who have endured this kind of commentary to describe the men with power over them, in positive ways, despite the inappropriate dialogue. It's rather like Congresswoman Blackburn's assertion, "You don't embrace, but you put it aside."
"Unfortunately there're times in life where I have to play dumb. Saying that I know what you're up to and what you're insinuating just puts me in a bad position. It exposes me. Sometimes it's better to pretend that I'm not catching on so that I can keep those cards close and use them when I need them."
Some women perceive it as something you have to endure until you can segue to another department, or job, when you will need that very man's reference over the course of a long career. Some women, before HR became a tool of protection, felt they had no other option. One also has to weigh the power of the person making the demands against the receiver. Usually it is a very successful person in a position of high power. A young woman at an entry level job may feel vulnerable, not only to the advances -- but to the consequences of reporting the perpetrator. It is not unusual for some women to grit their teeth and move forward.
An engineer dealing with steel companies tells of visiting a client and after she'd done her pitch, the client asked, ignoring the pitch entirely, "Will you go out with me?" Another visiting a foreign office was told by a client, "You will not get the account unless you sleep with me, and you're not leaving here until you agree." Her ploy was to go to the bar person, hand them a bill, and say, "I'm going to order vodka on the rocks, make sure you serve me water, and make sure that his are doubles." A commercial actress shared that it was not unusual during sound check, or a take, to be fed the line, "Suck my dick." Her response? "I'd laugh." She shrugged, emulating Congresswoman Blackburn's choice of response to, 'put it aside'. "What was I going to do? I'd often be one of a handful of woman on the set. I wanted to work with the director again. If I'd complained, that would not have happened."
Another engineer tells a harrowing tale of working on a rig off Africa. She was a new hire and thought it would be great for her CV. She arrived after a long trans-Atlantic flight, jet-lagged and ready to rest. She was greeted at her destination by some of the guys who would be her new co-workers. They invited her for a drink. She thought it would not reflect well if she declined. She agreed to join them prior to unpacking. She remembers ordering water, then everything went black.
She woke the next morning sore in her nether regions. She had no recollection of returning to her room. Disoriented with what she attributed to jet lag, and late for the boat to take her to the rig, she showered and noticed some bruising on her inner thigh. There was sensitivity. She didn't recall falling and couldn't think how her groin area could have been injured without her awareness. But it was her first day on the job and she was late. When she got to the dock the guys from the bar made snide sexual innuendo, which she didn't know how to handle. She was 25. She hunkered down, and ignored them. Once on the rig, she started to put it together.
She'd been given something and then raped. But what to do? How to prove it? She couldn't. She went to her superior, a male from a third world country who was not receptive to her assertion. The one other woman on the rig in her area was sympathetic but unwilling to put her neck out. The men from the bar often intimidated her when she was alone. One of the men from the rig, who had not been part of the rapists, took on the role of protector, shadowing her in certain areas where she felt vulnerable. When she returned stateside, and filed a complaint, she was terminated. She considered suing but was advised by a lawyer that it would be virtually impossible to prove. In addition, the company was an international one, operating in international waters, the people on the rig came from various nations. It would be a difficult case to prove.
In all the instances, the women who kept quiet felt they had no choice. Each carried a sense of guilt with them for not "doing" something, "saying" something. Its hard for those who have never experienced predatory sexual actions in the work place to understand the effect it has on the woman, psychologically, emotionally. Proving the behavior often comes down to he said, she said. There's the shock of not having acted. The self-anger at being a victim. The shame that silence makes you culpable. Many report being frozen, disbelieving what they are experiencing, and not having the tools to respond.
In life someone approaches you and you reject them, you can avoid each other. At work you return daily, the person you rejected has power over you and your career. They may actually advocate for you. There's the hope that the behavior will not repeat. There may be no other work opportunity readily available. There's the fear, especially when the person is powerful within the organization, of retaliation, loss of job, not being believed. These things usually happen without eye witnesses. Often the women are only motivated to speak up when all their bridges are burnt. When they know that their guilty silence is no longer needed, because they will never need that employer's endorsement in the future.
A young Ph. D candidate was mentored by a famous scientist. He invited her out when she joined his lab. She saw it as a kind invitation since she was a foreigner. They'd meet for drinks and talk about things colleagues talk of. On a scientific conference, she met another scientist and the two hit it off. The lab leader, world renowned, became incensed. He banned her from attending further conferences. He turned up at her house demanding to be let in after hours and on weekends, not making a scene, but incessantly ringing the door. He restricted her opportunities. Friends encouraged her to leave, but if she did, she would leave without her Ph. D. She'd have to start over somewhere else.
How to explain her decision to leave the tutelage of a famed scientist before her work was completed? It would not look good. She went to HR, but it was difficult to prove. None of the other women in the lab received the same treatment. His behavior was inappropriate only when alone. Plus there was the fact that she had willingly gone out with him initially. Could this be a love turned hostile? That she was no longer included in conferences was at his discretion. He limited her involvement in collaborating on work that resulted in publishing papers.
When asked about her lack of participation, he commented that her work was weak. It was only when she confessed to another scientist in desperation that it was suggested there had been rumors of something similar happening to a woman who had moved to another lab in another country. She was more senior to the Ph.D candidate. Upon approaching the other woman, that woman confessed she too had been the target of the scientist's control, but given his stature in the international community, and the chance that she might need his referrals in future, she was unwilling to support the Ph. D's claims, though confirming many of the same experiences. Ultimately, the Ph. D candidate got her degree and left. He still holds a position of honor both in his own institution and in the international community.
These are not unusual stories. The infractions often happen in an environment where the person exerting the harassment feels entitled and protected. Often the person who is harassed is younger and without mentors. That doesn't mean that the reverse doesn't happen too. That people are accused of exploitive behavior when none has occurred. Most abide by the decree: no personal comments. Gone are the days when a simple compliment, like, 'You look nice today', or 'What a pretty blouse', can be uttered innocuously. Not every comment on appearance is nefarious, but men in particular have to guard against perceptions. For some, interpersonal interactions between genders have become a landmine-laden experience where good intentions are misconstrued. But there is a vast difference between, 'nice shoes', and a direct link to suggestive implications.
For the women in these stories, the mental anguish is real. The endurance of going into an office where someone constantly makes overt sexual references that involve one is hard to explain to those who have never experienced it. Explains one woman, "When you counter, or try and shut it down, you are made to feel like it's the woman's fault for not having a sense of humor." Many of the comments veer on the edge, so if a woman does push back, the response can be, "Where's your sense of humor? I was joking. No harm, no foul. Lighten up." Another woman tells of a man who told her that the way she dressed made him uncomfortable. As far as she was concerned her clothing was typical office attire. She went to a woman mentor and asked for feedback on her wardrobe. Her clothing was not inappropriate. The mentor commented that there was an awareness that this particular male had issues, but he was good at his job and had not crossed a line in a way that was actionable. She helped the woman be transferred to a different department.
One other note, that it does not happen to one person is no guarantee that it did not happen to another. "It's not unusual for a woman to step forward and say, "I worked with John Doe for many years and never experienced any abuse." That may be true, but that doesn't mean John Doe wasn't abusing someone. Usually the person is seen as an underling, dependent on the job, and without power. HR is a great resource, but as one woman said, "I was told it was confidential. I didn't believe it. If I filed a report and he was questioned on it, he'd know it was me. I'd be even more vulnerable."
So when people ask: How could she stay in touch with the person she says harassed her? Or: Why didn't she leave or report him? This is the insidiousness of verbal sexual harassment. And these are some women's stories.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.