When it comes to sexual harassment, everybody---especially lawyers and juries and panels and so forth---wants to hear about the big egregious examples.
However, those big things are usually so obviously and clearly wrong that even a person in the middle of the situation knows it is wrong, not okay. That's not usually the part that hurts the most, although it's the part that gets the most attention. The problem with the big things, when you are in the situation, is figuring out how to handle it.
We're all cautioned to be nice, but women especially are taught and reinforced to be kind and thoughtful, sometimes to their own detriment. I don't want to go off on a tangent and talk too much about what modern American and similar cultures tell women about who they are supposed to be and how that---as well-meaning as it usually is---can often be the very tool that abusers and harassers use. But I will say that we---culture, society and parent---can unintentionally teach our daughters to place themselves second, without even trying. And this thing, the thing we think will make them Nice, makes them vulnerable, too.
This is why I am so vigilant about not forcing my daughters to accept physical affection if they are uncomfortable, taught them from day one that they have ultimate say over their bodies, validate their point of view (even if it doesn't get to be the final word), and teach them as best I can to not fall under any buses, literal or figurative.
It is not my daughters' job---nor is it any person's job---to make the people around them happy, especially at cost to themselves. It is their job to be respectful, courteous, and so forth. How other people feel is beyond any of our control. All we can do is our best to be kind and thoughtful.
I say all of this because in the end, it's not necessarily the big things that harm you the most. It's often the little things that end up causing you to slowly bleed to death.
That's why I'm not going to tell you the story about the time my boss told me to take off my skirt and run and hurl my body at a child's inflatable pool he'd attached to the wall, or how when I refused, he threatened to fire me and told me lacking a sense of humor and fun was a detriment in our work, or how I felt when I saw a normally reserved female coworker doing it...as I left more than half believing myself fired. I won't focus on the times he asked me to detail my sexual relationship with my husband to him. I won't go into the multiple female stripper incidents. I'll you about things other than the betting pool he had about the female employees---who could "take" who on in a mud wrestling match. I won't detail how it felt when he said our new office would include a shower: one in a locker room for men, and a plexiglass one in the center for women, and no bonuses to women who didn't shower there and double bonuses to women who showered there and lathered each other up. Or any of the other large, egregious incidents like this.
Instead I'm going to tell you about one of the little things, and how it affected not just my work and ability to succeed in my work, but also how it made me feel.
The emailed jokes incident
It might not surprise you to learn that this office was more like a fraternity house (and no offense intended to all fraternity houses). In fact, that's how the original band of engineers met one another: in a fraternity.
It definitely won't surprise you to learn that as a female, I was a definite minority in my career at an engineering company, so there were few women working there. Those few of us did bond, primarily over our femaleness.
As our work rapidly expanded, I got the go-ahead to hire three more employees for my staff. I intended to be fair in my own hiring practices, but kept a very open mind about giving more women a bigger chance to enter the field. However, the most qualified applicants who I thought would do the best job and be the best fit happened to be male. So I ended up with an all male staff. Initially this was good.
But the overall atmosphere at that company---which was disrespectful, inappropriate, and unprofessional to say the least---infected even my employees. From my office, I'd hear them laughing in the cube farm, but I didn't worry about it. I didn't even worry about the calls to, "Come see this, dude, oh my gosh it's hysterical!" I was a cool boss. I didn't micromanage. I trusted my employees. We had a good working relationship. A little fun in the day was to be expected. They did good work, and didn't miss deadlines.
Then one day they slipped up. They'd nearly gotten caught a few times, when I happened by a desk and a window would quickly flip closed, or conversation would halt abruptly. But on that day, the day they slipped up, it was a classic email error.
One of my employees was forwarding a joke to the rest of my employees via email. They tended to use the group distribution list for ease and simply remove my name. But for some reason? This time the sender forgot to remove my name.
That's how I got a horribly disgusting graphic and denigrating joke about women.
I was appalled. I knew my boss was like this, but my employees?
I called them into my office for an immediate discussion. I had my anger under control but not my disappointment.
I reminded them about the company policy and read several sections from the employee handbook, proving how many points the email violated. I expressed my disappointment, and told them this would end, now.
They stared sullenly at me. One--the sender---told me my boss had forwarded it to him. They all asserted my boss and other managers sent these things around all the time so it must be fine. It was all just funny. I should lighten up.
I felt my stomach clench in fear and fury. I had lost all vestige of authority with my employees. My boss had cut me off at the knees. Now I knew it for sure. My boss had been taking my team out to Boys Only lunches for months, and their attitudes had been getting progressively more rebellious, for lack of a better word. Any time they disagreed and I insisted, they went right over my head to my boss. Who always backed them up, no matter what.
I was sure, however, that I was right in this case.
I reiterated the company policy, suggested they read the handbook themselves, and reminded them how offensive jokes like that are and should be.
One employee became not just belligerent, but furious at me. With a voice shaking in anger, he stood in my doorway and promised me I hadn't heard the last of this.
I felt my stomach clench again, but decided my boss had no leg to stand on in this case. I printed out the email and added it to my harassment file, with notes about the events.
By the time I had finished, my angry employee walked past my door again and smirked in at me, then resumed his seat. Not a minute later my phone beeped. It was my boss.
"I understand you are trying to limit your employees' right to free speech," he said.
"They are sending inappropriate emails in violation of company policy," I told him.
Long story and aggravating conversation short, my boss told me it wasn't cool to stop the fun, and he was rescinding my order that the rude jokes stop.
"I've already told your employees, and I also told them if you give them any more crap to come straight to me. You ought to know I've been checking in with them and will keep doing so," he said.
In that moment, I knew it was lost. But I am not a quitter, and I stuck around, trying to resolve and fix and improve.
One part of me wondered if I was being over the top about the emails. Perhaps I did come down too hard, I thought, probably because of all the rest of it. But when I thought about the email, and knew it was actually one of many, I thought how could there be, why should there be, any tolerance for this? Even if it was an isolated incident (which it wasn't). I worried about what I had done to earn the disrespect and enmity of these men. Had I done it? Or had it been done to me? I had thought of us as friendly coworkers, and I tried to be fair, not lord my position or be bossy. I respected their input and endeavored to empower them. Perhaps the very fairness and empowerment I offered, in this toxic environment, became the very cudgels with which to beat me. Perhaps I had made mistakes, or had room for improvement.
But bottom line, to this day I believe I was right about those nasty jokes and my email rule. And now, these days---although I have trouble telling these stories, the ones in which I am vulnerable and may show my own errors, and feel shame about being a part of this---I know that no matter what, my boss was wrong, my employees were inappropriate, and nobody deserves to be treated the way I was.
The entire story would take weeks to tell, and to provide context would take many posts. I'm not sure how much sense it all makes, or how to really create the feeling and atmosphere in a blog post (even a long one). I think it is probably best to let these issues become sleeping dogs. But I'm not sure if I'm finished with it yet. I'd like to definitely let women out there in the workplace know that it's wrong to ask us to accept any of this. Just pure wrong. I'm not sure how to do that yet, beyond this.
Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
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