I Was Sexually Harassed at Work & Wasn't Brave Enough to Report It

sexual harassment

When I read about the waitress who wrote a post shaming the deep-pocketed hedge fund manager who groped her, my first thought was, "You go girl." My second thought, however, was why didn't I have the guts to do the same thing when it happened to me? It was something I endured for nearly a year but yet suffered in silence, too uncomfortable -- and yes, embarrassed -- to say anything.  

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According to Laura Ramadei, Brian H. Lederman treated her like a piece of meat when he dined at the family-style restaurant she worked in. She wrote:

When I asked you and your companion if you'd be eating, or needing anything else from me, you put your hand -- ever so gently -- ON MY A** and asked if you could take me "to go."

When I immediately stepped away and said "Sorry, what?" you probably gathered that I was and am not receptive of such advances from customers ...

I was wearing a loose-fitting, long sleeve shirt, jeans, and no makeup ... so I'm not sure where the confusion arose as to what kind of service you were being provided ...

For me, the circumstances were different. It wasn't just some one-off insult. I worked on a team with a guy who made it his mission to make lurid comments and sexual advances toward me on a near daily basis.

For example, our Monday morning meeting would typically start with light banter about our weekend. While everyone else kept the conversation PC, he would turn to me and say, "I'm surprised you can walk today after hanging out with your boyfriend all weekend." What followed were usually side glances and uncomfortable looks from everyone around the table. And when he would make inappropriate comments about how I looked in an outfit, no one said anything.

It was as though they didn't take it seriously or felt it wasn't a big deal. Which, says therapist Jessica Cashman, isn't so far from the truth. "Overall within society we see a minimization of issues that affect women more than men," she explains. "Take Viagra, for example, or abortion rights. Additionally since men are more often not the target of the harassment, they don't understand how a seemingly innocuous comment or compliment can make a woman feel uncomfortable. Men don't understand that drawing attention to the way a woman looks at work versus her ability to do her job is not very flattering."

And though I was extremely uncomfortable, I was afraid saying something would do more harm than good. What if people turned the situation around and made me to blame somehow? What if I was blacklisted as a troublemaker? Those feelings are all too common among victims of sexual harassment. "Although we have come an extremely long way, many women unfortunately are educated to be embarrassed of their sexuality," says Dr. Howard Forman, Board Certified in Forensic Psychiatry and a psychiatrist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "If we are honest with ourselves, how often is a woman unfairly shamed for her sexual behavior while a man is celebrated for it? Many victims of sexual harassment misattribute the blame and say, 'What could I have done differently?' This can lead to self-doubt, low self-image, difficulty in desired intimacy, anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and depression."

For me, the final straw came when we had to work late one night. I was in his office going over a presentation we needed to give the next day. He closed his door and started taking off his clothes. "You remind me so much of my wife," he cooed, instantly making me nauseated. "What's the problem?" I felt more shock than fear. I couldn't believe he was taking his behavior this far. I grabbed my papers and said, "This isn't going to happen." Then abruptly left. The days that followed, he did his best to make my work life miserable -- belittling me in front of colleagues and clients.

I just couldn't understand why he was like this. He was in his 60s, married, and seemingly smart and rational (aside from the harassment). He didn't seem to act this way with anyone else. Was it me? "The victim of sexual harassment is never ever the cause of it, and I think that this mentality of 'she deserved it' is one of the most corrosive misconceptions we can have," explains Forman. "A woman should never be asked to change who she is or what she says in the hopes that it will 'prevent' sexual harassment."

Instead, suggests Forman and the other experts, our environment and the way we think about women needs to change. This goes beyond being just politically correct. "What prevents sexual harassment is a culture of respect that people in the workplace need to have for each other and a shared understanding of what the purpose of their work is," he adds. "All personality types and body shapes of women are sexually harassed and none of them deserve it. Likewise, women who dress more traditionally or more fashion forward are sexually harassed and none of them deserve it either." 

Oddly enough, I never once considered officially reporting him. I just didn't trust the system. Though I probably should have. "The policies are usually fine," says Dr. Tina Tessina, a psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex, and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage. "It's the enforcement of the existing policies that is lacking. Victims need to feel they have a place to report the incident without repercussions."

Adds Cashman, "I think it is a good first step but in the end men need to realize what this behavior does to women. Instead of the action being purely punitive, if the man understood why this affects women so much, he may be less likely to do so in the future."

But it goes deeper than that, warns Forman. "The problem is not the absence of policies, sexual harassment is a cultural problem and most centrally a parenting problem," he says. "I am the father of a wonderful 3-year-old son, and undoubtedly, the most important factor in preventing him from being a harasser is the way that he sees me and other male role models treat women."

When something like this does happen, it's not just a momentary emotional battle. I'm proof of that. I still think about that experience every time the issue comes up. "Overall I have found that the most common feeling is that of being unsafe," says Cashman, director of the Center for the Psychology of Women. "Feeling as if they can't really trust anyone and needing to be hyper-vigilant so that this doesn't occur again. This can come in the form of a woman watching what she wears, or who she talks to, or just altering her behavior in a way that this won't happen again. Besides the feeling of being unsafe, many women also feel a decrease in self-esteem and self-worth. Especially in the workplace when you feel that your worth is based on the way you look opposed to the quality of the work itself, it can be easy to be discouraged."

My situation was finally resolved when I left that team. Everyone I worked with knew what was happening. I think even HR had heard whispers about it because when I asked for a transfer, there were no questions asked (which was unusual for that company).

Perhaps I should have said something, but even that requires a certain amount of back-up; otherwise, it becomes a he said/she said campaign. "Find out what company policy is, and the procedure to report the incident," says Dr. Tessina. "Be sure you have the evidence required, such as a fellow employee who's willing to witness for you, or emails in which the perpetrator says inappropriate things, or maybe even a recorded phone call. Otherwise, it's his word against yours. Other victims can also be good witnesses. Follow the reporting procedure, and ask that your report be kept confidential as long as possible."

If I had to do it all over again, maybe I would handle it differently. But that could just be the older, wiser me talking. Even the experts say every situation requires a different plan of action. "Each case is so unique that it is hard to make a sweeping generalization as to what to do," advises Cashman. "In some cases I have advocated for the woman to report it if in doing so, she could be assured that it would be done safely. In other cases we have found ways to avoid the person or discreetly tell a coworker to help her out. Bottom line is for the victim to feel safe, and unfortunately sometimes reporting the abuse is not the safest way for the victim to proceed."

Have you ever experienced sexual harassment in the workplace?

 

Image © Frank May/dpa/Corbis

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