Women who’ve worked in entertainment, medicine, retail and other industries share their advice
These women, too.
“Suggested by a friend: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” actress Alyssa Milano tweeted Sunday. “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” A torrent of harrowing tales spilled out on social media.
About 40% of women report experiencing unwanted sexual attention or coercion at work and nearly 60% say they’ve endured workplace gender harassment, according to a 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report. And though the agency doesn’t provide breakdowns by industry, women’s personal accounts amid Harvey Weinstein’s still-spiraling sex scandal make clear that harassment and assault transcend industry, age, location and income level.
If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. pic.twitter.com/k2oeCiUf9n
— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) October 15, 2017
Moneyish spoke with seven women whose experiences span decades, trades, races and settings. Here are their stories and their advice for women facing abuse of their own:
Lesley University professor Donna Halper, 70, is widely credited with discovering the band Rush in 1974 as a DJ and music director. But her career struck a darker tone a year later, when she took an interview on a record executive’s houseboat. “When he said he had a houseboat, I didn’t want to seem like … ‘Oh, I don’t want to go on your houseboat, sir.’ A guy would go on the houseboat, so fine, I went on the houseboat.”
What followed, Halper told Moneyish, was one of the most horrifying experiences of her life: Standard job interview questions gave way to his “need to see if we’re compatible,” as he grabbed her hand and placed it on his penis. “I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘How can I get out of here?’” she said. “I basically tried to use my powers of persuasion to talk him out of it; to get him to just stop.” He lashed out, called her a “b—h” and told her she’d never work in the industry again — but let her go. “When I spoke to some people that knew this guy, their attitude was like, ‘That’s how he is.’ … Asking me to adapt. Asking me to keep quiet. And I did. But I never forgot it.”
“The culture being the way it was, I really felt that people wouldn’t believe me and I would be branded a troublemaker,” she said. “I didn’t understand why part of working in the industry I loved meant accepting that a guy was going to put his hands on me in a way that I didn’t want him to put his hands on me. And it’s really, really depressing to see that in 2017, women are still experiencing what I did.”
Survivors of sexual harassment and assault should “tell your truth if you have to, (and) understand that not everyone will believe you, but hopefully you’ll find a few good people who will take your side,” Halper said. “If they do, so much the better for you, because it will make it a lot easier for you than the women in my generation that had to go through it.”
"I wasn’t engaging in what most people would call ‘risky behavior’ — I was just doing my job." https://t.co/sqnfoiNOrR
— Moneyish (@Moneyish) October 17, 2017
As a newly minted college grad interning at a nonprofit during the summer of 2009, Miriel was tasked alongside a fellow intern with arranging travel accommodations for guests to an annual academic conference. She greeted one professor, a prominent figure in his field, with a bright smile before the morning session — receiving a two-handed handshake and a pat on the hand in return. “I was really friendly to him (as) part of my job,” she said.
But in one social setting fueled by alcohol — Miriel had opted for soda water with lime — the professor made a public pass while standing next to her in a circular group conversation. “He reached out and put his hand on the small of my back and started rubbing my spine with his thumb,” she said.
Miriel, momentarily frozen, stepped forward slightly; his hand followed. “He was so confident,” she said, adding it “would have been very awkward for me to say ‘no’ very loudly to him.” “It’s actually kind of genius, if you’re going to be a creepy jerk, to do it in that manner — if we had been unobserved by anyone else, I would have just moved and gone away.” After Miriel announced to her co-intern she would head back to the hotel for the night, a woman who noticed her discomfort walked her back and offered support. Miriel told her immediate supervisor and the head of the program, both women, the next day. “They were both really great about it,” she said.
“There is a perception in certain circles that if you just make all the right choices and don’t put yourself in risky situations … you will be protected from experiencing sexual harassment,” Miriel said. “In the context where I experienced sexual harassment, I wasn’t engaging in what most people would call ‘risky behavior’ — I was just doing my job at this extremely respectable academic institution.”
Caris Adel, a pseudonym under which the 35-year-old now blogs, worked six months as a server at a Michigan restaurant when she was 18. Her uniform’s khaki jeans, paired with constant movement and “bending up and down to get stuff,” inspired harassment from a dishwasher more than 20 years her senior.
“You have a really nice ass,” Adel recalled him telling her frequently in front of coworkers. “It made me feel very vulnerable … I’m not there to be consumed by you. So what if I do wear tight uniform pants? Why do you need to say anything or see that?” While none of her colleagues ever stepped up in her defense, she offered lighthearted pushback herself, once asking, “Don’t you have a wife?” His reply: “Yeah, but it’s ‘look, don’t touch.’”
Adel felt conflicted at the time: “I knew it wasn’t OK, but I just thought that was what you put up with when you work in the restaurant world,” she said. Plus, she added, the admiration buoyed her low self esteem “in a weird and creepy way.” “You almost feel guilty — maybe it wasn’t really harassment because part of me liked it. But it’s still gross and wrong and inappropriate. And it was unwanted and without my consent. I couldn’t stop it.”
“I wish I would’ve known and had the words to say, ‘This is making me uncomfortable and making me feel vulnerable and unsafe,’” she said. “You can always make a fuss — it’s OK to say no loudly.”
Sexual harassment “happens to women in medicine from when you say ‘I’m interested in being a doctor’ all the way up to when you’re an attending,” said Maneesha, a 36-year-old doctor. Her most egregious encounter, she said, came when she was a third-year med student on a two-week surgery rotation. Over multiple days and multiple surgeries, a “very well-respected” surgeon would solicit a trocar, a device used to penetrate patients’ bodies during laparoscopic procedures, from the nurse in the operating room. The sick twist: “He looked me dead in the eyes and told the nurse, ‘Hey, can you give me the dildo?’” Maneesha said. “He always called it the dildo. He looked at me every time he did it.”
Maneesha, for her part, “didn’t feel empowered” to tell supervisors lest she endanger her residency prospects — after all, “this is a lauded surgery attending who has gone through medical school, had close to 10 years of training and has been practicing in his field for a couple of decades” — and the anesthesiologist, scrub nurse, surgery intern and surgery fellow present in the room stayed silent. “Any one of them could’ve been more empowered than a medical student with a grade riding on this,” she said. “People don’t want to rock the boat. It’s a scary prospect to do so.”
On the one hand, Maneesha said, she regrets keeping quiet; the surgeon could’ve subjected other women to similar language. “But at the same time, I worry that if I’d said something it would’ve blown up in my face and affected my career. I’m very happy with where I am right now, and I wouldn’t change that for the world.”
“It might be hard to speak up in the moment, and that’s OK,” Maneesha said. “Take time away from the situation, find a trusted female adviser (or) ally, and then come up with a plan to try to succeed. We can’t let these moments go by unnoticed, but it can be difficult to try and address it in the moment — especially if it’s a big power differential.”
Susan, 60, worked as a sales rep for a then-major pharma company in ’80s and ’90s Greensboro, N.C. As a woman in a male-dominated field, she faced harassment from at least two doctors she called “major” prescribers of the drugs she sold: One would pat her on the butt (she’d laugh, then “turn away real quick”); the other, on separate occasions, asked if she was still breastfeeding and suggested she let him know if she was “ever unhappy” in her marriage.
Twice, Susan said, her boss hired adult entertainment for meetings and asked everyone to chip in. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m not comfortable with that.’ And he goes, ‘Why not? It’s nothing you haven’t ever seen before’ — I guess referring to my own body.” Susan refused to pony up and walked out of the meeting, later returning to find him passing around Polaroids from the performance. “It was a work meeting that I was required to participate in,” she said. Ahead of the second strip show, a male colleague with whom she’d grown close stood up and walked out with her.
After a decade of abuse, Susan and her friend finally brought a list of grievances to the powers that be — who demoted the manager back to a field rep, but declined to fire him. “I still regret to this day that I didn’t find me a feminist hotshot attorney — that I didn’t have the wherewithal to find somebody that could be my voice and show what had happened and say how wrong it was,” Susan said. “I could’ve sued that company for God knows what.”
Susan’s advice: “Don’t take it.” “Find a safe person to talk to, and don’t be afraid to report it,” she said. “(Telling my story) is confirmation that what happened was wrong — and I finally feel like I have a little bit of a voice. Finally, somebody will know what happened to me.”
Thirty-year-old Alex, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, spent seven years as an in-house graphic designer at a Nevada manufacturing and distribution company. She realized during the job interview that something about her boss seemed off: “He told me that I should call my university and get my money back because I was stupid,” and said so in front of her soon-to-be coworkers.
Nonetheless, she snagged the gig, where things only worsened. The manager — pals with his own boss, who was a vice president and the company owner’s son — would comment on her body and clothing choices, tell other workers she was a lesbian when she didn’t discuss her romantic relationships with men, call and text her at inappropriate hours and tout his open marriage when they were alone together. He called Alex to his desk to view photos of lingerie-clad celebs, despite her protests, and claimed she was “intimidated” by the women. Once, he allegedly emailed Alex and her female colleague a photo of a penis-shaped chandelier “saying it was the perfect light” for them.
After Alex’s male co-worker reported the harassment to HR, the boss pulled her into his office and said “some version of, ‘If you’re a prude, you don’t need to work here anymore.’” When his harassment of another female coworker eventually spawned another complaint, the boss’s boss and HR suggested they simply continue working for the same boss in a separate room. “It was like pulling teeth for them to realize that the only choice would be for that man to resign,” Alex said. Following his resignation, the VP “told us we’d ruined our boss’s life and should think hard about that.”
During her remaining time at the company, Alex found herself being passed over for opportunities, fighting for raises and making less money than new hires. “I was also docked points on my company review that year for reporting my boss in a fashion that was not company policy,” she said, “even though they had not provided me or my co-worker with any handbook.” Alex, who says she was well-liked and oversaw the company’s largest account, got laid off in January amid a “restructuring.”
“All these people say, ‘You should speak up, you should speak up,’” Alex said. “We did, and you’re treated completely different.” Harassment victims should “follow company protocol 100% to begin with” and familiarize themselves with key HR personnel, she advised, and “if the company doesn’t listen to you, definitely go to a lawyer.” “I would definitely not wait for the company to do right — they could just do it to more people (afterward) because they think it’s OK.”
The harassment began in February for Darnette, a shift manager working at a Louisiana drugstore, when one of the store’s two managers snuck up on her, grabbed her around the waist and tried to kiss the back of her neck, catching her hair instead. For months afterward, she said, he commented on her appearance and breasts — and upon her requesting off in mid-September to get married this winter, replied, “I need to meet this man who took you off the market — you must be a freak in bed.”
After he kicked her in the behind, Darnette said, she lawyered up and pressed charges. In late September, she reported his assault and sexual harassment to the district manager — only to be told she could continue working at the store until he returned from vacation, but would thereafter be reassigned to another location until the investigation wrapped. “That just did not sit well with me,” Darnette said. “That’s like me being punished because I put a complaint in … I didn’t want to leave my store.”
The stress brought on an anxiety attack for which she was hospitalized; upon her release, she said, management forced her into medical leave to “focus on (her) health.” Darnette, who insists she is “fine,” hasn’t yet been approved for short-term disability leave. “If I don’t get approved for it, then I won’t get paid,” she said. “I have bills to pay; I have children to take care of … This man’s still at work making his money.”
“Let them know up front: ‘Don’t talk to me like that; I don’t welcome that; I don’t like you like that; this is unprofessional,’” Darnette advised. “And tell somebody as soon as possible.”
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