Earlier this year, I found myself in the middle of the Women’s March on Washington, darkly joking with two women in their fifties I had never met before, about how the three of us had all faced sexual harassment in our careers.
Only one of us had ever gone to human resources to complain.
She had done it recently, saying that she felt confident about reporting it, in part because of her position in the company. She was very senior and well respected; she knew that addressing it wouldn’t present any issues for her. Ultimately the situation was mediated and her harasser was no longer a problem. When I asked the other woman why she hadn’t done anything about it, she said she thought she could handle it herself, and didn’t want to deal with the potential blowback. A lot of women feel that way.
I have faced inappropriate sexual advances multiple times in my work history. When I graduated from college, I worked for a restaurant owner who thought it permissible to text me requests to wear certain outfits during my shift. Within the media industry, I’ve had managers who eye my body rather than my face during conversations, and a colleague who once handed me a manila envelope with two 8-by-11-inch photographs of me that he had taken. “I have one on my fridge,” he said. I mentioned the incident to another producer who had been at the outlet for a while to try to gauge what my other colleagues might think. “Oh, that’s just him,” the producer laughed. That reaction, effectively an endorsement for old men to flirt with the young women they worked with, made me really uncomfortable. But I was inexperienced and a contractor, so I knew I was easily replaceable.
The worst offense was when a coworker tried to trick me into a weekend getaway with him. He told me he was supposed to cover a story in New Orleans, but he couldn’t do it because he had another commitment in the city that weekend. He asked if I wanted the assignment. I said sure. Later, when it was time to put me in touch with an editor, he finally copped to his ploy. There was no story; he was trying to get me to travel with him to New Orleans and share his hotel room.
I was so floored by his blunt admission, I was rendered speechless. Perhaps most shocking to me was that this was happening to me at a place that on the whole was supportive and had a good work culture. I declined the invitation, and though I felt gross about the encounter, I didn’t go to HR. Again, I felt my job was potentially at risk if I spoke up.
Roughly 70% of those who experience sexual harassment at work don’t tell a superior about it, according to a report from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). What is it that makes people like me shy away from reaching out?
What defines harassment is not concrete. Not everyone would agree that my experiences–mostly men I work with either objectifying me or propositioning me for sex in some capacity–qualify as sexual harassment. The EEOC defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” However, it also says this: “Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).”
What exactly constitutes the tipping point between a small infraction and serious abuse? Former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit against executive Roger Ailes last year detailed a whole culture at Fox News built around sexual harassment and the general subjugation of women. Yet it took her 10 years to file suit.
As many as 1 in 3 women between the ages of 18 and 34 have suffered sexual harassment at work,
according to a 2016 poll. Yet only 40,500 sexual harassment reports were filed in 2015. Not only is it hard to determine what qualifies as harassment, the reporting process is completely daunting. Unless you have hard evidence of your harasser’s commentary or it’s happened with witnesses present, it’s your word against theirs. And if you haven’t talked to coworkers about your experiences, you’re unlikely to know if anyone else has already reported your harasser.
Even if other people have flagged that person to human resources, there is no guarantee the department or company will have your back. In the account told by former Uber employee Susan Fowler, human resources actively ignored her complaints. While Uber’s culture may seem particularly unique, it’s not the only company that wishes to protect its own interests or those of its high-performing management.
In any outcome, there’s always the fear that the person you report will retaliate in some way. Your harasser has already proven themselves the kind of person who crosses personal boundaries. Will they spread rumors about you? Will they try and get you fired? Will they threaten you? If other coworkers find out, will they rush to your support or shun you?
Then factor in the nagging part of your psyche that says, I can handle this situation without outside help. This self-preservation mechanism forces you to second guess whether you’re even being harassed in the first place under the assumption that if you can handle it, it must not be that bad. There is actually very little incentive to report, unless the harassment is so bad you’re unable to do your job, at which point you are more likely to look for another job rather than try to fix your current one. This self-interrogation is part of what prevents women from ever saying anything about their harassment.
It should not be this hard to get help at work. This isn’t just a problem for Uber to solve; it’s one we all should be aiming to fix.