Women need to stick together when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace

My day started off like normal, picking out something to wear to work at my office job, attempting to look presentable. I was feeling really good about myself because I had recently lost 20 pounds. I was excited that an outfit I once loved suddenly fit me again, so I put on my favorite pencil skirt and blouse, along with my favorite red heels. I felt confident, professional and really proud of myself as I walked into the office, ready to take on the day.

After being there for about 30 minutes, my male supervisor approached me at my desk out of nowhere. He was staring at my legs for what felt like an eternity before he said in a low whisper, “Wow, Erin, I really like your shoes.”

Feeling very uncomfortable, I responded with, “Thank you,” and turned back towards my desk to continue working, hoping that was the end of it, and he would leave me alone. I wish I could say he did.

As he began looking me up and down with a disgusting smile on his face, he continued: “I have never seen you dressed like this before.”

I cringed.

“What are you doing later?”

I sat there looking at this man who was sexually harassing me, but the only words I could come up with were, “This is just what I picked to wear today.”

“Well, I love it, you look great.” 

Then he walked away. He had come over to my desk just to discuss how I looked and how much he liked it.

The first thing I did was bite my tongue to keep from crying. I sat there staring at my desk thinking about how excited I was that morning to fit into my old clothes and how professional I felt that day. I was angry at myself that I didn’t say something right there to his face, letting him know what he was saying to me was not okay and I didn’t like it.

I gave myself two minutes to feel sorry for myself and then I jumped into action.

I immediately wrote up exactly what happened, word for word, and sent it to Human Resources, letting them know I wanted to file sexual harassment against this man. It was a few hours before I heard back from them, asking me to come to their office to meet and talk about the incident. As I sat there telling this woman what was said and done to me, I stared at my red shoes, thinking I would never wear them to work again.

After a few days of “investigation,” I was told that I was being moved to a new team, a new desk, and a new boss. I was told that “if I see this person in the elevator, just to go to another elevator.” I was told he didn’t mean it the way it came out and that he was sorry, he made me uncomfortable. They said they told him not to speak to me anymore, but that we do work together so seeing him around the office won’t be avoidable. They might as well have said he is allowed to do whatever he wants.

I was infuriated. I confided in a co-worker about what happened, hoping to get some idea of what I should do. “Yeah,” she said. “He has done that to me before, too.” I asked her if she has ever made a complaint about it. She said no; she didn’t think it was that serious, and she didn’t want to cause problems. She was willing to be sexually harassed at work because she didn’t want to cause problems! For the next 15 minutes, I sat there trying to explain gently that not saying anything was becoming a problem.

A few weeks went by, and I found out this man was demoted and no longer allowed to be a supervisor to anyone. While it may seem like a small victory, part of me was relieved that at least I spoke up, and I was told other women had started to come forward about what was happening to them, too. I had started a chain reaction with the rest of my female co-workers who have felt uncomfortable by this man at one point or another.

Recently, we all witnessed a form of harassment against presidential candidate Hillary Clinton when she was told by male commentators to “smile more.” Whether you are for or against Hillary Clinton being the next president is not the issue. As women, those comments should be extremely offensive to you. It is not OK to be treated as an object by men or to be treated as though we are simply here as something pretty for them to look at. It is not OK to have to “fall in line” to what a man believes is the proper way for a woman to act. And it is not OK, to make a woman feel less than equal simply because she is female.

As queer women, some of us might even feel more uncomfortable speaking out because we don’t want to draw more attention or focus on us when our sexuality is already something that makes us stand out. Although everyone in my office knows I am gay, I would be lying if I said it didn’t cross my mind that being gay and filing a sexual harassment complaint might make me look more like a “man hater” than someone who was simply standing up for herself. Even though I was concerned, I decided that my boss knew I was gay, and yet it didn’t stop him from doing what he did, so why would I let that stop me from doing what I needed to do?

I cannot begin to compare my situation to those who have experienced more severe levels of sexual harassment and sexual abuse that I can’t even fathom, but I hope my story can give encouragement to women out there who may feel like their voice isn’t going to make a difference. It is vital that we as women realize that this type of treatment is not something we are going to tolerate and certainly not something we are going to remain silent about any longer. The more we stand together, the louder our voices become.