Sexual harassment: what is it, who is it affecting, how do we deal with it? According to Oxford Languages by way of google search, sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome and inappropriate sexual remarks or physical advances in a workplace or other professional or social situation.
In 2017, the spark of the “#MeToo” movement brought sexual harassment back to the forefront of media and conversation. Through this hashtag, many people told their stories, shared information, and stood together against sexual harassment in different industries. We were flooded with information in the news and on social media from all walks of life; men, women, gender neutral, musicians, actors and actresses, janitors, CEOs, and various types of professionals were included. I took the liberty of interviewing a few strong and willing people that wanted to share their stories. All names and jobs are changed for the protection of these people, but their stories, just the same, are ones that need to be told and evaluated.
The first interview I conducted was with a gentleman we’ll call Sam. Sam works in the warehouse industry and has for many years. While working as a forklift operator, Sam encountered an older woman that had a sort of leg fetish; the woman said that she “liked calf muscles.” She took it upon herself to comment on and even touch/rub on Sam’s legs whenever she saw them exposed. Sam, wanting to avoid issues and respect his elders, awkwardly laughed and asked, “why are you touching me?” The laugh may have thrown the woman off as she never stopped. Sam said he never reported the incidents because “she’s a lady and I’m a dude; people would call me gay.” While he said this was not his first experience of sexual harassment he said this was the one that made him feel the most uncomfortable. When asked for one suggestion towards reporting, responding to, and/or preventing sexual harassment, Sam suggested “keep pepper spray” as a deterrent and mechanism for defense if necessary.
The next interview I conducted was with a young woman we’ll call Susan. Susan worked in child care as a daycare teacher. Through the day, she was surrounded by other women at work, but her issues came when it was time for the children to be picked up. There were always comments made by some of the fathers that made her feel uncomfortable, but no one had the persistent or gall of one father in particular, let’s call him Will.
Will, a married man with a daughter attending the daycare that Susan worked at, would hassle Susan with inappropriate comments. He engaged in slightly touching her saying things like, “you can watch my daughter at my house” and “I’d love to see you outside of here.” Susan initially just ignored her harasser As she was not his daughter’s teacher, she would try her hardest to avoid him altogether during pick-up. This didn’t help though. Will would ask the other teachers where Susan could be found, and although they knew that she was essentially hiding from the man, they would still point him in her direction.
Susan eventually addressed the man and his wife. His wife defended his actions by saying that he was just joking and being nice. After being blown off by them, Susan took her complaints to the director of the daycare looking for some sort of solace and solution. This also got her nowhere. Despite the strict rule against teacher-parent relations, the director of the daycare told Susan to “be lucky; you get all the compliments.” To make matters worse, Will eventually found Susan’s social media accounts and attempted to engage with her via personal messages. All these things combined lead Susan to finding another place of employment; she decided to completely change industries to avoid any possibility of running into another father like Will. When asked for suggestions on reporting, responding to, and preventing sexual harassment, Susan said, “every time an employee seems or reports being uncomfortable, coworkers and employers should take the situation as seriously as possible; regardless of opinions on the situation.”
The last interview I conducted was with a woman we’ll call Sally. She works in the automotive industry. Sally commented by first saying that her job depends mostly on group work and being able to be reached for communications. Although she did have a company email address, she was not provided a laptop or cell phone, so all her communications were done through her personal phone number. She describes her most uncomfortable sexual harassment experience as one that started at work and tended to follow her home. After giving out her phone number to a group of colleagues, one of the women in the group started to make advances. It started as slight comments and sort of “class clown” notions while at work to get Sally’s attention. Once when shaking hands at the end of the day, the woman, who we’ll call Kate, kissed Sally on the hand. Kate’s actions only escalated from here. She began to text Sally everyday. She sent good morning texts and instead of acting out in front of the group, Kate would send text messages complimenting or even complaining to Sally. Eventually, the two stopped working together, but they were still at the same job. Kate’s text messages became more and more personal. Text messages included Kate saying things such as “we were meant to be together,” and expressing anger when she felt that Sally was being too personal with other coworkers.
In this time, Sally expressed on multiple occasions that she had no sexual intentions when agreeing to work with Kate or giving out her phone number. Despite this, Kate persisted for months, essentially having full daily conversations with herself as Sally did not respond. After Kate transferred to another location, the comments went from sexual and possibly inviting, to threatening and more stalker like. Kate would call and text from different numbers and email addresses to try to get a response. She would send Sally text messages whenever they were on the same property. Comments would include, “I saw you today, and there were two seconds that you looked at me and I knew you’d eventually be mine forever.” Sally says she never saw Kate on the days when Kate remarked seeing her.
Sally ended up reporting these issues to the HR department of her company. Unfortunately, Sally was not at all satisfied with the results of this report. She said although the company addressed Kate and told her to stop, they tried to make a lot of the fault seem like Sally’s. Why had she let it go on for so long, why didn’t she block the numbers or change her own number. They also made the case seem to Sally like it was one of just custom harassment and not sexual harassment because both parties involved were female. While Sally reports the personal messages have stopped, she suspects that Kate has made fake pages on social media to follow her, as names much like Kate’s often show up in her views and messages. When asked for suggestions to aid in reporting, responding to, and preventing sexual harassment, Sally said, “just try to go to work, keep your head down, and go home. Hopefully they won’t notice you then.”
These are only three private instances of sexual harassment at work . All of these in different industries, under different circumstances; yet, we see how each situation is one that can and was severely uncomfortable. In one instance, it lead to the need to seek other employment altogether. While I am not saying that all employers don’t take sexual harassment seriously, I sat through interviews with people that admitted to originally being scared to even say something to their employers. People fear retaliation from their harassers or employers, being blown off, and even their story trying to be turned against them.
Determining what is sexual harassment is a call for employers to make. Although there is legislation about it, legislation states that there has to be a determination of frequency, severity, if the action is threatening/humiliating or just offensive and if it interferes with performance at work. Most of these things are based on perception beyond the victim’s. Despite all this, there are ways to report sexual harassment until it is taken seriously. If you or someone you know is experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, report it. Even if you only report it to a fellow colleague, sexual harassment claims can be reported by anyone it affects or makes uncomfortable, not just the victim. If things persist, take things up the chain of command. If possible, keep a log of every offense and communication so that people cannot try to contest your claim. There are sexual harassment hotlines that you can find for your state or job based on your location. If all else fails or you feel the need to go straight up the latter, you can file a claim with the EEOC.
I know that all these things seem long and tedious. I know that we all wish there was an easier way to avoiding, reporting, and responding to sexual harassment; but honestly, there just isn’t. The best advice I really have is to start by speaking up for yourself. Whenever you feel uncomfortable, make it clear to the person making you feel that way; don’t laugh or brush it off or take it lightly. I know that we try to be nice and avoid issues at work, but harassers often say that they “didn’t know” their behavior was inappropriate because the victim never spoke up, or laughed/chuckled at the comments.
As we learn to recognize and properly approach sexual harassment at work, let’s be sure to keep ourselves, co-workers, and employers in line and held accountable for all actions and claims of sexual harassment. Let’s remember to look out for each other at work. We all go to work to do our job and make it back home to our families; why not keep an eye out for people feeling uncomfortable in these professional spaces. Lastly, like yesterday’s post said, let’s remember to be kind. It is never easy to speak on being a victim of anything; remember to be kind with yourself and with others, especially as it relates to topics as sensitive as this.
As always, be blessed, be safe, and thanks for tuning in for another #TakeALook Tuesday!