My story about being sexually harassed is one of my funniest. Of course, it’s been heavily edited and refined over the years. Since my early twenties I’ve managed to whittle away all the scary anxiety-provoking parts until it was boiled down to something resembling a scene out of a nineteen-fifties comedy; slightly inappropriate yet humorous. It was the best way the twenty-three-year-old me could deal with it. It was during my first job out of college. I worked for a political consulting firm and one of our biggest clients was a senator who was expected to win his reelection campaign by a large margin. The funny version of my story is that I went to his senate office with a sound technician to record a radio spot. When I walked into his office he was sitting at his desk holding a highlighter. As I began to run his lines with him he asked me if I knew why he had a highlighter out. To which I replied that I did not. He then said in his thick Southern drawl that the Lewinsky report would be coming out shortly and he “intended to learn him a few new things”. To which I replied, “Senator, we should run your lines.”
Here’s what I leave out. He was rolling the highlighter in his fingers in a suggestive way and it made me want to run out of the room. I also leave out the fact that he had a reputation for being a consummate flirt and possibly more and early on in the campaign he took a liking to me. If I wasn’t at a film shoot he’d ask the production crew where I was and to have me come over to run his lines with him. When we went on location to his state for a week long shoot he’d always have me sit next to him at dinner and he’d tease me into eating the local dishes. I just kept telling myself to ignore him and he’d stop. He’d get bored when he saw I wasn’t playing along. I just prayed he wouldn’t ratchet up the stakes. That he wouldn’t outright proposition me and force me to shut him down. He was one of our highest paying clients that election cycle so I knew if it came to me with my newly minted communications degree or the Senator whose campaign was writing us hundreds of thousands of dollars of checks which one of us was going to lose.
It was embarrassing. I wondered if my coworkers were watching this humiliation play out and thinking to themselves that I actually enjoyed the attention. I know some of them felt badly for me. A few became quite good at imitating his accent when he drawled, “Where’s Nicole?” We’d laugh at the impersonation like it was the funniest thing ever. But it wasn’t funny for me. It got to where my stomach clenched and my throat closed up each time I had to be around him and I was exhausted from the non-stop two-step I felt was keeping me employed.
Working in fields dominated by men for my whole career–politics and finance–I have to say that 99% of all the men I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with are gentlemen. But I also recognize that the 1% of men who aren’t can wreak havoc on vulnerable women. Sexual harassment doesn’t typically reach the levels of the alleged monstrous allegations against Harvey Weinstein. But even the “milder” versions—like my experience–can do damage. There are three players in every sexual harassment situation: the harasser, the harassed, and the coworkers. Each plays a critical part in either fixing the problem or perpetuating it and there are specific things we need to do to stop this cycle.
1. The Harasser: This might not be the most P.C. thing to say but I think most times (not all) but most times men don’t understand that their behavior is offensive and frightening. When men are in a position of authority they need to think to themselves: “would I want a man to say this to my mother?” And when in doubt just don’t say it. You might think you are being funny but if the person you are “joking with” might not feel comfortable telling you to go pound sand then the playing field isn’t level and you need to remain above reproach. If you are Harvey Weinstein there’s not much I can do to help keep you out of trouble. So then it’s a matter for the next two players.
2. Co-Workers: It’s normal in a work environment to try to avoid conflict. But as co-workers we often spend more time with each other than we do with our own families. So when something inappropriate happens in the workplace more than likely as co-workers we are bearing witness to it or at the very least seeing the fallout after the fact. Which is why I challenge each of us to do what one of my brave co-workers did when she saw my former assistant being treated in a borderline inappropriate way: she stood up for her. There was an outside vendor in our office and he greeted everyone with a handshake, however when he greeted my very young, very beautiful assistant he exclaimed, “I’m a hugger, come give me a hug!” To which one of our co-workers stood up and told him in no uncertain terms was he to hug my assistant. She told him she had watched him shake hands with everyone else in the office and that he was going to be extending that same courtesy to my assistant. How badass is that? If we agreed to stick up for each other, ask each other what we can do to help, and advocate for each other I think we could truly transform our workplace.
3. Harrassed: We must raise our hands. As scary and as painful as it might be, we have to raise our hands when something isn’t right. If you can’t do it yourself, talk to a friend at work and get their support. But for God’s sake don’t hold it all in and pretend everything is fine. Nothing will change if we don’t advocate for it to change. If you have a mild offender in your workplace sitting them down and being honest may cause them to change their ways. If you have a true monster on your hands don’t be afraid to go to management or human resources. The only thing that stops monsters is the truth. Get on record, create accountability. You do have power and a voice, don’t silence yourself. Do it for you and do it so the next twenty-three year-old woman doesn’t have to.