The New York times recently published an article on 42 men in prominent positions accused of sexual misconduct that have been fired or resigned since Harvey Weinstein was fired in early October, and it made my jaw drop. But not as much as my original shock, when friends began posting their “Me Too” stories on social media.
For years, women have used whisper networks “back-channel” ways to protect themselves and others from predatory men in positions of authority. We know that these claims usually end up hurting the victim as much (or more, sadly) than the perpetrator. I grew up at the time when Anita Hill was being grilled for her experiences during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. I realized then that we speak up at our own peril. And since we know about certain men, but we want to protect other women, we develop ways to try to report informally to one another, without calling too much attention to our own experiences.
When many brave women came forward and found the courage to speak publicly about the harassment and degradation they have faced in work settings, a tide was set loose that has been building. Our president’s brash and openly defiant position as “Harasser in Chief” has been shocking to some of us, but in light of all the abuses so many have experienced, it is high time our whispers turned to shouts.
Time magazine’s cover for December 18, 2017 chose “Person of the Year” to be the Silence Breakers, women who had come forward to talk about their experiences of harassment in the workplace. I applaud them for acknowledging the courage it takes to come forward especially in light of the power dynamics that are so tipped against women in nearly every domain: politics, business, economics, academia, etc.
My own story is one of a rare few, with only subtle forms of harassment, what I would call “everyday sexism” of the workplace. I have been fortunate in that way, and I realize that in conversations about the Anita Hill situation while I was in high school, my parents reinforced the idea that I should never tolerate that kind of behavior. At a different place in my career, and in a culture that still devalues and objectifies women, I can see how so many women would not feel empowered to fight back.
When it is your boss or a person in a position of authority, can you really afford to risk your livelihood to complain? Isn’t it easier just to go along and get along?
Perhaps, and I would never judge a woman who is subjected to this behavior for not coming forward. Many women have regrets that they did not say something sooner, that maybe they could have prevented other women from going through the same pain.
As a manager, I recently completed a set of online training modules addressing harassment and policies at our company. I am sure it is no coincidence that the daily news stories reveal a much deeper and wider scope of the problem. The training was surprisingly good, and emphasized not only the policy portion for HR, but also the importance of building an inclusive culture where this behavior cannot thrive.
Fortunately I work at a company where we have policies that allow for good-faith reporting of problems, and ones that do not retaliate against employees who make complaints. That’s not to say it does not happen. I am sure it does. I view my role as helping to support a culture where disrespectful behavior is not the norm. I have had to stand up occasionally against sexism, especially on behalf of my team, which historically was made up of mostly women in front line positions and men in leadership.
Often I am the only woman in a group of 4-6, because I am in a lot of meetings with leadership, and the medical device field is overwhelming male. We work with cardiologists and electro-physiologists, a group that is probably 80% men. I make sure my female employees understand that under no circumstances are they expected to tolerate inappropriate behavior from any employee or customer/physician with whom they interact.
A few years ago, a female colleague in Mexico sheepishly told my boss at the time that she preferred not to visit a certain clinical research site. Apparently the physician had become interested in her, and was texting her inappropriate things, trying to get her to “go out” with him. She was exasperated and explained: he doesn’t even care that I’m married and wouldn’t be interested! Nope. He does not care. It is about power. That is the point.
Fortunately my boss at the time and my current boss (I was not yet the manager) told her: you never have to tolerate that behavior. Always be sure if you do visit the site, you do not go alone. Also, if you want us to find someone else to deal with that individual, you never have to go back there. We will never place you in a situation where you do not feel safe or respected, no matter how “important” the customer. I was grateful this was their advice, and now that I am the operational leader for my team, I continue to help my team to understand they will have my support if they ever encounter this behavior.
Particularly as Latinas, we work in settings where machismo is still very much alive. I shall write about that in a future post. The point I hope to make here is that it is ALL of our responsibility to make sure this culture is not tolerated in our workplaces.
Men, women and leaders especially need to take steps to make sure that we allow people to speak their truth, and that we hear people out. If there are complaints, we need to work with HR to make sure these are investigated without retaliation. We need to confront the perpetrators and explain what behavior will not be tolerated. Further follow up needs to happen when more serious behaviors are brought to light. Culture change does not happen overnight. But the message is LOUD and CLEAR: we will not tolerate this behavior and we will join together to ask you to STOP!