It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last. My conversation with the technical director paused. He reached over and ran his hand down my leg, giving it a squeeze. There was a moment of silence as we made eye contact. I ended the conversation and left his office.
It was 1998, seven years after Anita Hill testified that Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. I remembered how she was minimized, in part, for not telling anyone when he repeatedly conducted himself in inappropriate and offensive ways.
I went back to my office and told my coworkers what happened. I would need them to back me up if it continued and I had to go to HR.
Why Has It Taken So Long?
Now, 26 years after Anita Hill’s testimony, sexual harassment and assault in the workplace has broken wide open with the class-action lawsuit against Harvey Weinstein, as well as other cases against prominent and public figures such as Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly. It’s a veritable avalanche of accusations across the public spectrum.
However, sexual harassment and assault in (and out of) the workplace are not limited to those with big names and workplaces. (Nor is it limited to women.) It happens all the time. The #metoo movement on Facebook and Twitter has demonstrated that sexual harassment and assault is almost to be expected every day by women worldwide.
In fact, a 2015 Cosmopolitan survey found that only one in three women ages 18 to 34 report that they’ve been sexually harassed in the workplace. More than 70%, however, did not report their abuse.
Why did they not report it? Because it’s not easy to prove sexual harassment and retaliation is real. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), charges of retaliation linked to all discrimination claims have skyrocketed from with 18,198 claims in 1997 to more than 42,000 in 2016.
What to do?
From a victim’s standpoint, there are a number of things that can be done. First, tell the person that you are uncomfortable with their actions; second, tell your supervisor or someone in the HR department; finally, if there is no satisfaction you can lodge a complaint with the EEOC.
An employer should have a clearly written policy in place that is communicated to all employees. There should be harassment training in place so employees know what it is and how to file complaints without retaliation. Employers should have a line of response that includes fully investigating all complaints, and a disciplinary process should be in place.
For the accused, they will need to look very closely at their behavior and expect to change it, otherwise they may have a lot to lose; just look at Weinstein.
What Happened Next?
I didn’t know if my interactions with the technical director would lead to more inappropriate physical contact or not, so I gave him another chance. Maybe it was a mistake he wouldn’t make again (I’m pretty sure my death stare indicated that he’d better not).
If he did, I would tell him to stop in no uncertain terms. As a measure of protection, I told my coworkers in case an investigation would have to take place. Fortunately, I never had to go down that road with him.
Unfortunately, there have been encounters with other coworkers in other jobs over the years that were worse. For many women, it is just another day at the office. Hopefully that is changing.