Sexual harassment: Should you take it lying down?

October 3rd, 2007

Anita Hill’s op-ed piece in the New York Times yesterday triggered a trip down memory lane for me, kind of like one of those “Where were you when Kennedy got shot?” moments. And I’m a-gonna take you with me…

In 1990, I was fairly clueless, certainly when it came to matters of sexual harassment. Only a year earlier, I’d been ass-swatted and propositioned repeatedly by a crazy managing editor at the weekly piece-of-crap community newspaper that hired me straight out of college. When the boss wasn’t rambling on about his “days back in ‘Nam,” he was either ogling the breasts of his female cub reporters or waxing unpoetic about the things he’d do to us behind closed doors if only he were 20 years younger. Lacking any reference point of Proper Workplace Conduct, I chalked it all up to Loser Has-Been Middle-Aged Guy With A Touch Of PTSD Syndrome and nervously laughed it off. The fact that I didn’t speak up and put this dirty old letch in his place still horrifies me today. Had I known then what I know now, I wouldn’t hesitate to put my paltry paycheck (less than $200 a week) on the line to paste that pecker to the wall.

A year later, the professional rep of Professor Anita Hill was on trial, so to speak, during the Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. I’d moved from the newspaper in LA to a progressive book publishing company in NY, where my co-workers and I watched a 6-inch B&W portable TV in horror as a bunch of cranky old white guys on Capitol Hill lambasted Hill for speaking out about pervy Thomas’ inappropriate advances, incessant talk of sex and porn, and pubic-hair-on-the-Coke-can commentary when she’d worked for him years earlier — curiously, at the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. It was then that I started to (duh!) connect the dots: my mom hadn’t been marching with an “ERA Now!” sign in the 70s just because she had nothing better to do on a rainy Saturday, my former boss was lucky no one had stripped him of his title and paycheck yet, and it took a hell of a lot of guts for a woman to speak out against a Boss Behaving Badly in a work world that amounted to nothing more than an old boys’ club.

I know it’s not the early 90s anymore (though we do still have a Bush “running” the country). Now you can’t read or watch the news for a week without hearing about some discrimination suit or other. Today’s columnists and talking heads seem to love “Women are the new men!” equality-in-the-office stories as much as feminist zines and bloggers do. And even if motivated as much by lawsuit phobia as by social awareness, workplaces are more egalitarian than ever.

But still… There are people who will never believe Anita Hill and all the Anita Hills we have yet to hear from. There’s also this: The price of speaking out against harassment can be quite hefty, at times costing accusers their jobs, reputations, careers, and even mental health. When I was writing The Anti 9-to-5 Guide, a few women I interviewed — successful, ambitious, powerful, well-paid women — said they’d been sexually harassed at work. Not in a “Holy crap, I think I might need to hire a bodyguard” way. But in a “Don’t expect to succeed in this company because, after all, you’re just a chick,” or a “You only got the promotion because you have a hot ass” way. In every case, the women told me they didn’t want to speak up and risk jeopardizing their job. Besides, they “knew it was a losing battle.”

More disturbing, I recently interviewed a couple of career consultants for an article on women’s workplace issues and was told that women should not file a sexual harassment complaint at work, unless they are fully prepared to sacrifice their job and possibly their career. (Evidently retaliation from lawsuit-skittish employers is alive and well.) One consultant I interviewed even went so far as to say, “Why should you have to put your job on the line for some jerk who’s just going to abuse his power at the next company he lands at anyway?”

Maybe it’s easy for me to say I’d risk my job, career, and mortgage to stop some boneheaded manager from acting like a Neanderthal because I work for myself. Maybe my blood wouldn’t be so quick to boil if I was a minimum-wage worker with a couple of kids to feed and couldn’t afford to lose my job no matter what. I’m not sure. But I know that if it weren’t for Anita Hill, countless women like me might not be asking themselves these questions at all.

Entry Filed under: Glass ceiling

13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Laura  |  October 3rd, 2007 at 7:40 am

    Wow.

    I am offically delurking today. I just started freelance writing and really enjoy this blog.

    Thanks.

  • 2. Sweating Through Fog  |  October 3rd, 2007 at 9:53 am

    “But I know that if it weren’t for Anita Hill, countless women like me might not be asking themselves these questions at all.”

    if it wasn’t for Anita Hill, employers like me wouldn’t be put in this position: If I choose to hire a someone, I can either a) risk a possible sexual harassment claim by the person I hire, or b) risk a lawsuit because I hire an employee who themselves create a hostile atmosphere, or c) risk a lawsuit because I fire the employees I already have because I get concerned they might harass others and expose me to legal risk

    I don’t want to be a dictator at work, and even if I tried my best I’d probably get sued because somebody claims I’m unfair. So my best option for staffing is to avoid legal risks entirely – by contracting offshore workers.

  • 3. Michelle Goodman  |  October 3rd, 2007 at 10:57 am

    thanks, laura, and… glad i don’t work for STF.

  • 4. Amy T  |  October 3rd, 2007 at 12:07 pm

    Thank you, Michelle!

    After I read your interview with one of said consultants, I clicked through and found some of what she had written on sexual harassment–and found it revolting, actually. I respect your work and am relieved to read that, though you may share other ideas with this person, you don’t condone those particular beliefs.

    Because honestly, she makes me wanna hurl.

  • 5. Michelle Goodman  |  October 3rd, 2007 at 12:27 pm

    amy, thanks for the comment.

    for the record, i wasn’t trying to point fingers at my sources. i respect them and their ideas and work, even though we may not agree on every point. otherwise, i wouldn’t interview them. :) i just wanted to point out that this difference of opinion exists, and it’s obviously one i feel strongly about. in their defense, i will say that these people i interviewed (who have seen the workings of HR departments up close and personal) weren’t just spewing some ann coulter-esque crap; they were speaking to the realities of what they’ve seen in corporate america.

    perhaps i should have said this above, but when i broke it down with these interviewees, they did agree that a person should try telling their harasser to cease and desist — they didn’t advise playing the demure sheep all the way. they just wanted me to know that filing a lawsuit could land you in the unemployment line. i hear that, but still feel like it’s a risk i’d take if in that position.

    anyway, after talking over my reservations about this issue with a couple fellow writers and an editor i was working with, i decided to nix the harassment issue from my article because i couldn’t bear to advise people to suck it up and keep quiet. i guess that was my main point. i’m not out to name names here and degrade anyone who’s entrusted me with an interview. (and know that comments will be shut down the second anyone starts naming names… i’m already questioning the wiseness of posting about this. it’s a big fat journalistic gray area.)

  • 6. Michelle Goodman  |  October 3rd, 2007 at 12:58 pm

    btw, since we’re all about harassment today, anyone wanna share a good “you won’t believe my boss was that stupid” inappropriate behavior story? c’mon. let’s make Sweating Through Fog squirm!

  • 7. Rhebe (Michelle's Mom)  |  October 3rd, 2007 at 1:09 pm

    Another high profile case was decided in court yesterday. There was a $11.6 million judgement against the Knicks in a sexual harassment case filed by Anucha Browne Sanders. She stated that she brought this action for all the women in business who face harassment after she was fired subsequent to her reporting the incidents.

    Hopefully the rich and powerful will finally (30+ years after first raising my consciousness) wake up and realize all people need to be treated with respect in the workplace and elsewhere.

    Here is the NYT link:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/02/sports/basketball/03garden-cnd.html?_r=1&ex=1349064000&en=87e19cb97b2c9b5d&ei=5088%20&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&oref=slogin

    Yes, I marched for the ERA in the 70′s, civil rights in the 60′s, smaller battles and campaigns in the workplace in the 80′s, and much letter writing and local lobbying in the 90′s and forward. I will keep speaking out against injustices in our world and hope someday that I will not have to anymore.

  • 8. Sweating Through Fog  |  October 3rd, 2007 at 9:29 pm

    Michelle

    . . .let’s make Sweating Through Fog squirm!

    . . . OK – just wait till after the job interview :)

  • 9. Meg H  |  October 3rd, 2007 at 10:30 pm

    Excellent blog. amen.

  • 10. jen_chan, writer SureFireWealth.com  |  October 4th, 2007 at 12:49 am

    I don’t think we’re stuck in a losing battle despite the statistics and despite what career consultants might say. The fact that we have not yet lost the battle means something. It means that we are slowly making our way to turning this whole issue around. But it would take more than just one person to break the silence.

  • 11. nicki  |  October 4th, 2007 at 10:45 am

    if a women complains she has alot at stake. as there are many levels to get thru- the HR department all the way to the legislators and the courts

    here is an interesting piece we worte on my site about how the UK courts are overwhelmed with claims

    http://www.theglasshammer.com/news/2007/09/23/uk-news-equal-pay-tribunals-overwhelmed-with-claims/

  • 12. MJ  |  October 5th, 2007 at 12:27 am

    I really respect people who dare to speak out about corruption and harassment because obviously, a lot of people do not dare to do so – afraid of being labelled as the troublemaker, complainer, bitch, etc.

    If the event (corruption & harassment) really did happen, the ‘victim’ and every witness should come forward! And the people who are the ones managing the solution should not dismiss the reports!

    Ignoring and denying it ever happen are just going to make the problem worse. I disagree with those consultants who advise people to shut up and move on. Why let them get away for making your life miserable?!

  • 13. STEPHANIE  |  October 21st, 2007 at 12:04 pm

    In response to the statemnet “the”victim” and every witness should come forward:

    That is a complete fantasy statement with no basis in reality. Anyone who disagrees with people who give the advice to shut up and move on are a hypocrite!

    Everyone gives their strong opinion on how people need to take a stand and come forward. I do believe if faced with this horrible situation anyone with the advice to “stand” would definitely not back up their statements with action. One cannot answer this with any comment unless they themselves have been in this situation. Great that people want to describe themselves as righteuos – yet when the ultimate decision comes actions are opposite.

    I know for I stood up to BLATENT harassment and faced extreme retaliation and complete career ruin after being a successful executive for over 13 years.

    Leave, get transferred and above all do not think for one moment you will have support from HR, your peers or even people who you once perceived as your friends and allies!

    Headline “grabbers” are a catch 22. Good for the media and discussions about a real serious issue yet in reality what does the effect have on the “average” worker?

    Harassment is still a misunderstood issue among many with not a complete understanding of it at all.

    Training, Training and more training by large and small companies would be the most effective start.

    Then just perhaps, no more discussions of whether to take a stand or not will go by the wayside along with the serious problems permeating the workforce.

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Hi, my name's Michelle Goodman and I've been freelancing since 1992. I'm author of My So-Called Freelance Life and The Anti 9-to-5 Guide. Read my full bio here.

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