Monday, November 7, 2011
Sexual harassment - another go-round
It was my first taste of the business world. One day, an out of town buyer asked me out to dinner. He was youngish and handsome, so I accepted. After dinner he tried to kiss me in a cab, surprising me. When I refused, he complained that one of the salesmen had promised I'd put out for him, because I lived in the Village, and was that kind of girl.
I didn't do anything about it. In fact, I had a crush on a salesmen - not him; the other one. I thrilled each time he took any interest in me, whether it was to praise my typing skills or teach me the difference between a Kirman and an Isfahan. The girl I was then would have welcomed a workplace advance from him.
Our bookkeeper, Ruthie, was friends with a guy named Harry who worked for a drapery wholesaler down the hall in our building on Fifth Avenue in the Thirties. I went with her to a Christmas party there, where Harry, wearing a Santa hat and sloshing scotch from a tumbler, leaned in and slobbered on my neck with his red wet lips.
Throughout my years in the theatre - touring and working long hours as a stagehand - it wasn't unusual for co-workers to hook up - whether seriously or casually. Sometimes it worked out and sometimes it went horribly wrong.
As a member of Local #15 IATSE, the Seattle chapter of the stagehand's union, I was in a minority as a woman. There were perhaps a half-dozen of us. We put up with a lot of crude talk and jokes, and in the mid '80s a woman newcomer complained about the guys' behavior, accusing them of harassment. I was sympathetic - until she asserted that the only reason the women who went before her were members - me and my friends - was because we slept our way in.
Although that accusation was actually somewhat TRUE (in my case, I slept with a guy no one liked!) she lost the support of her female colleagues.
In the '90s, as a member of the Executive Board of my union, I had to rule on a complaint by a woman that her male co-worker made her uncomfortable with his behavior. I learned about the concept of a hostile work environment. A few years later, our board had to intercede on a case of domestic violence between two co-workers who were in a relationship.
Sexual harassment is intimidation, bullying or coercion of a sexual nature. It can also be the inappropriate promise of reward for sexual favors. The key component of sexual harassment is that it is unwelcome. Both victims and harassers may be of any gender. A victim can be the direct target of harassment, and can also be someone who is affected by the behavior second hand. It is illegal for people to be subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace - and in the workplace, it is the employer's responsibility to protect workers from harassment.
It is not easy to speak up at work. It is not easy to defend a co-worker against harassment. It is not easy as a supervisor to challenge harassing behavior.
In my lifetime, the topics of sexual harassment and sex in the workplace has dominated the news cycle twice - first in 1991, then again in 1998. Now, it looks like we're in for another go-round.
What's your experience with sexual harassment? Both at work, and in other situations? Have you experienced it first-hand? How about as a supervisor? What about unfair accusations? Let's talk.