When I was 14, a friend made the brave decision to confide in me. While working at a politician’s office, she told me her supervisor had ogled her, flirted with her, and made lewd comments about her appearance. I encouraged her to report him, but she was also 14 and scared to risk her internship and future career in politics. The sad reality was that, before we’d even hit high school, we both knew she was more likely to be laughed at than genuinely listened to.
Almost five years later, the #MeToo movement, third-wave feminism, and the national attention they’ve both garnered have resulted in minor improvements for women in the workplace. Unfortunately, many of us still suffer from harassment, and 81 percent of women report having been harassed in some capacity at least once in their careers. But this isn’t just a woman’s problem — men file almost 1 in 5 of workplace sexual harassment complaints, and the EEOC reports that the rate of workplace sexual assaults committed against men nearly doubled between 1990 and 2009. This is an epidemic that can infect the lives of employees of all races, gender identities and backgrounds.
Service-based industries, like fast food restaurants or clothing stores, are responsible for more workplace sexual complaints than any other sector. Unfortunately, service-based jobs account for most Americans’ first foray into the working world. Young men and women preparing for their first jobs are the most vulnerable members of the workforce, and we should be striving to equip them with the tools to deal with sexual harassment by employers and coworkers.
We have so many opportunities to educate young men and women on the many different forms workplace harassment can take and how to handle it — co-op orientation sessions, mandatory sexual assault seminars for incoming freshmen, even high school health and personal finance classes. It is important to explain that seemingly innocuous compliments, remarks or gestures can make someone uncomfortable and become acts of harassment if they don’t stop when asked.
On the flip side, it is also important to emphasize that most interactions merit at least one chance for a do-over. Some of us aren’t great at reading subtle social cues. An even larger portion of society may never have been taught what is appropriate and inappropriate in the workplace, so if someone has made you uncomfortable, it’s important to tell them that. Give them one chance to fix his or her behavior; if they don’t, then it is time to report them to a higher-up.
In these programs, we could tell young men and women that it’s not okay for your supervisor to make unsolicited comments on your body, your attractiveness or your personal life. We could explain that it’s inappropriate for anyone to try to coerce you into flirting with them for a higher position, and you don’t owe anyone your time if the matter isn’t work-related. We could inform them of the proper way to report sexual harassment and misconduct, and let them in on the secret that sometimes HR will make decisions in the company’s best interests, not yours. In fact, 75 percent of employees who experienced mistreatment in the workplace have faced retaliation upon filing a complaint. We could discuss the grim likelihood of blacklisting and how to deal with backlash among coworkers for reporting a well-liked employee. Most importantly, we could make them understand that it’s not their fault and they’re not alone, and that they should never sacrifice their self-respect for the sake of a job or internship.
In my experience, though, workplace harassment is a subject at best briefly mentioned in these classes, and at worst, never touched on. Instead, girls my age appear to rely on each other — if you’re harassed by someone you work with, you can vent to your friends. Anything else might mean risking your job or internship, risking someone labeling you a “tease” or a “prude,” risking your entire career, even, if no one believes you. So you endure the awful feeling in your gut and the crawling of your skin every time you see your harasser and keep going because you are not the one with the power here — they are.
It isn’t that society accepts sexual assault as perfectly normal –– though some members of the incel community may have something to say about that. It’s more that many of us can’t seem to understand why “harmless flirting” isn’t always just harmless flirting. For those who choose to abuse their power in the workplace, “harmless flirting” is a boss dangling a promotion over an employee’s head, promising the promotion every time the boss feels they’ve gotten enough attention, threatening to give it to a coworker if the employee hasn’t messaged, called or emailed enough.
“Harmless flirting” is a coworker growing so jealous and angry every time an employee mentions his or her significant other that the employee no longer feels comfortable around them. “Harmless flirting” is creating a workplace culture where employees know they have no other choice but to indulge their boss’ whims, to endure the endless off-the-clock messages that constantly cross into unprofessionalism, to laugh and take it when their boss makes personal comments. After all, risking the perpetrator’s anger would only mean risking your own job security — and there’s nothing “harmless” about that.
Most colleges provide mandatory sexual assault education for incoming freshmen and transfer students. Providing the same sort of education on workplace harassment would serve as a valuable opportunity to teach students how to both recognize and handle sexual harassment.
This is an epidemic that can infect the lives of employees of all races, gender identities and backgrounds. Workplace harassment does not care who you are, nor does it care about how much money you have. No matter what walk of life you come from, the sad truth is that you are not immune to sexual harassment or to the pain it can inflict. That is why we must educate as many as we can, and particularly our nation’s most vulnerable, on what workplace harassment looks like and how to deal with it. If we are successful in that, then perhaps we can one day say we made workplaces of all kinds safer for our children.