Tuesday, March 13, 2012

When Sexual Harassment is Business as Usual

by Laurie K.

The last time I had a stalker at work, I didn't even notice.

He came by my desk multiple times a day. He knew where I was every second I was at work. He would show up at various places I happened to be on the sprawling office campus as if it were an oh-so-charming coincidence. He would email me and get snippy if I didn't respond right away, calling or coming to my desk to see what was more important than him. Sometimes, he'd leave me gifts. I was not interested in him in any way, and I said so. I made it clear that I had a boyfriend; he was not deterred.

The guy was an annoyance, but I didn't begin to realize the depth of the problem until one of my coworkers tried an intervention. "I'm terrified for you," he said. "I walk you out every day because I'm afraid you're going to end up dead in a ditch if I don't."

I work in a heavily male dominated field. I'm very often the only female on the team: In the 14 years of my career, I've had five female peers and one female boss (she lasted six months). There is always at least one guy that's stalkery to one degree or another. Your day is filled with inappropriate remarks, off-color comments about your appearance, and things that any other female in any more integrated industry would be screaming bloody murder about. If you want to work in a field that men dominate - especially socially awkward men - you accept this as the price of doing business. It becomes your normal.

My experience with the aforementioned stalker was so commonplace for me that even my coworker's baldly stated worry didn't truly phase me. I laughed. He didn't. And the next day I got a very concerned call from the Human Resources department. I told the HR lady that I thought this had been overblown. This was just how things were. It was fine; he wasn't dangerous. She asked me very gently why, if things were fine and he wasn't dangerous, had five people - one of them not even from my department - told her they were deeply concerned about me. I had no answer. She kept questioning me about details (How many times does he come to your desk? How often do you see him in unexpected places?) until her gentle but inescapable logic had me in tears.

I'm pretty sure she thought I'd been putting a brave face on things and was now Letting It All Out. Sadly, it wasn't that she or my friends were right that bothered me. It wasn't the fact that she pinned me down and forced me to admit the situation was scary. It was the sheer inevitability of being victimized this way, of knowing I'd be here again and again, forever, as long as I was in this field.

The HR department came down like the fist of God on this guy. Only my insistence that I never once felt threatened - and I didn't - kept his job, I suspect. Human Resources kept in constant contact with me to make sure there was no retaliation of any kind. I'm pretty sure that the HR lady I worked with was part of the Spanish Inquisition in a former life. I say that with respect.

What kills me about this situation is that I'm one of the tough ones. My skin is about a mile thick. I can dish it out and I can take it and it just doesn't phase me - hell, I might not even notice. How awful must it be for those women who aren't like me? How many women suffer this sort of situation in silent terror, uncertain whether complaining would fix the problem or just inspire retaliation? You never know which way it will go until you make that initial report.

When we talk about erasing the gender gap in male dominated fields, we also have to talk about what we're doing to address the fact that sexual harassment and stalking are business as usual in those fields for the women that are in them already. Every woman who works in a field adjacent to mine has at least one horror story to tell about a stalker. Hell, most of us talk about who's bothering us lately and when we're going to finally do something about it. We might even laugh about it, but it's not funny and we know it.

Although they try damn hard at most reputable companies, Human Resources can only do so much. The men and women who work in these fields have to stop accepting this culture of sexual harassment as status quo. It is getting better. Three of the five who complained about my stalker were male. If we can get that way of thinking into the general population, we'll be well on our way.
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  1. Wow, Laurie. Thanks for writing this. I'm so relieved you had coworkers that were looking out for you. That is so uncommon. Seriously, reading your account made me cry. I'm so glad you came out unscathed.

    I completely agree that we need to raise awareness of the issue. People can't afford to keep quiet because it's awkward or uncomfortable. I worked in an organization once where a subordinate was sexually harassing the women in our office. He was so over-the-top that it was like he was out of an 80s sexual harassment after-school special. No one would say anything to him. The women in the office happily cornered female subordinates to reprimand them for dressing inappropriately or yell at others in front of half the staff for goofing off but NO ONE stopped him. So I did. I was barely 24 in an organization filled with people two and three times older than I but they didn't do a damn thing.

    It's not acceptable and you rock for bringing this up.

  2. 'oly crap. That's insane. And scary.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing your story, Laurie. I am so glad that your co-workers and HR looked out for you.

    There is this sense of "that's the way it is" or "nothing will change if I speak up" that is so pervasive and it's scary what people get away with.

    1. I think there's also a sense of, "I should be tougher, if I complain I'm just going to be rocking the boat and look weak".

  4. I lasted one year in engineering school. Actually, three months and then I knew I needed to leave. It wasn't that the courses were too hard (although I did jump at the excuse to drop physics) but I found being watched, approached, talked to all the time oppressive. Probably only other introverts can truly appreciate this, but I was really uncomfortable with being a continual focus of attention. I starved my way down to almost nothing and cut off all my hair and then I transferred to a nice 50-50 coed experience and became an English major. My dad once told me he'd never hired a really good female engineer and I told him that women had a gauntlet to get through to become electrical engineers and plenty of smart ones got into the gauntlet, realized that the rest of their lives would be like this, and determined that the money wouldn't be worth it. Obviously, I'm not one of the thick-skinned! But that gender gap starts in education and so, probably, does the problem.