Startled when her phone buzzed with a text that asked, “What color is your underwear?” Katie* glanced around the dorm room she was in during her freshman year at college. She had taken on a part-time job as a burrito roller, chip, and salsa assembler, and quesadilla griller at the Latin-themed dining hall on campus.
A few weeks back, one of her colleagues had sent a text—a 26-year-old ‘super senior’ who lived with his significant other. Until that fateful night, their exchanges were limited to casual conversations. But then the first query sparked off a series of questions that kept coming:
“Do you wear underwear when you sleep? Do you sleep with your boyfriend? Do you walk around your room with your underwear on or off?”
Despite Katie exercising silence, the texts from her co-worker kept pouring in – phone lighting up and buzzing like a perpetual reminder of his unwelcome presence. But eventually, even though this deluge stopped, she still had to work two uncomfortable shifts with him every week without reporting the matter to her boss.“I didn’t want to make trouble because I was scared it would come back to bite me and that nothing would change, or that things would be worse and I’d have to quit to escape, and I needed the job to feed myself,” she said.
She was paralyzed, questioning whether the messages were serious enough to report. Her co-worker hadn’t engaged in any physical contact or spoken inappropriately; she worried that her reaction might be excessive.
As I conducted interviews for this article, it became apparent that every woman shared a similar story to Katie’s; if not their own experience, then they relayed one of a friend or sibling. Harassment is sadly commonplace in any line of work—from journalism and waitressing to business consulting and production assistance—although certain industries are more notorious than others (such as Silicon Valley).
Even more, the majority of these women kept quiet about their experiences due to feeling vulnerable and overly sensitive. This is an all too common occurrence with workplace harassment- not only do many refrains from telling anyone (a poll conducted by Cosmopolitan showed that 71% of female employees were mistreated but never spoke up), it’s incredibly hard to take legal action against such perpetrators.
The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines harassment as, “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.” Harassment can come in many guises, from jokes and insults to intimidation and offensive pictures, all of which can be perpetrated by anyone.
[Related: Mean Girls at Work: Why Women Are Bullies]
However, the EEOC notes that “petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents will not rise to the level of illegality.” Each instance of harassment is evaluated on an individual basis to assess whether or not it falls within the legal parameters.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) labels both harassment and sexual harassment as discriminatory, which violates Title VII laws that protect employees from being treated unfairly in the workplace. Moreover, employers are strictly prohibited from retaliating against an individual who speaks up about sexual harassment or discrimination endured at work.
Despite the difficulty, it is possible to win a workplace harassment lawsuit. To do so, plaintiffs must demonstrate that their employer acted with an illegal motive; for example, due to someone’s race, sex, gender identity, or national origin. Ellen Pao – former Reddit Chief Executive who sued Kleiner Perkins (a venture capital firm) for sexual and gender discrimination – lost her case because jurors did not believe she was dismissed from her job on account of her gender alone.
In typically male-dominated fields, it can be especially hard for women to voice out harassment. Megan* provides an example; she was the only female intern working with one of the most renowned business consulting firms in America that summer. Her team consisted of two other men and they had daily meetings with a group comprising seven senior members from their client’s company – all men. With such gender imbalance, Megan found it difficult to speak up against any misconduct or injustice being served toward her by those higher-ranked males.
“Because the consultants work for the company, there was both the power dynamic of consultant-to-client on top of the dynamic of intern-to-seasoned-employee,” Megan said. “They all knew this was my first ‘real job’ and that I was only 21.”
Megan was hesitant to confront her boss about the inappropriate advances from a client’s employment due to the unequal power dynamic. As such, it took Megan quite some time until she mustered up enough courage to do so.
“The first time he asked me for drinks was very uncomfortable,” she said. “We all sat in one big room together, and he asked when other people were in the room. They’d been talking about how the project had been stressful, and when I agreed he said, ‘Well why don’t I take you for a drink to help ease the stress?’ I felt uncomfortable, but I also felt like I was reading too much into it because he’d asked me in front of the team. So even though it was direct and inappropriate, he got the upper hand.”
She had been deflecting his offers for drinks, dinner, and a ride to the airport for some time. Yet when everybody disappeared for lunch, he approached her again as she was having issues with a piece of code – making her one of the few who remained behind during break. He walked up to her and inquired if he could be of service. “I remember thinking it was strange because he didn’t know [how to code],” she said. “That’s when he started rubbing my shoulders like he was giving me a back massage, saying it would be fine.”
After alerting her superiors about the incident, she was relieved to find out that the client’s supervisor had instructed the offender to work independently from his team. However, he still remained a part of their collective, meaning he had his own space away from everyone else and would sporadically appear in meetings as if nothing happened – exacerbating an already tense atmosphere even more.
“I realized that he’d made me feel uncomfortable long before he rubbed my shoulders,” she said. “But it wasn’t until there was physical evidence that I felt sure the report wouldn’t be brushed aside. We aren’t comfortable being ourselves and acting on gut instinct in a business setting where we’re the minority. Our acceptance in the field is too perilous to risk.”
In a study on sexual harassment within the workplace, Sara’s repeated experiences are far from unique; in fact, 75 percent of female respondents reported that they had experienced multiple occurrences on more than one occasion. The same study also found that “sexual harassment, even at relatively low frequencies, exerts a significant negative impact on women’s psychological well-being.” Women who were subjected to even minor harassment in the workplace demonstrate a variety of adverse effects, from dismal occupational satisfaction and detachment to detrimental mental health conditions such as PTSD.
Although it might be sexual in nature, harassment is rarely intended as a romantic advance. Instead, it’s “designed to humiliate or intimidate the target,” and can take the form of verbal abuse, assigning unrealistic workloads, withholding resources or information, or arbitrarily removing responsibilities, according to the Journal of Employment Counseling. According to a recent research paper, male employees often become hostile towards female supervisors as their masculinity is challenged.
“Previous research shows, that men who have been made to feel emasculated in some way are later more likely to sexually harass a woman,” said the study’s main author, Ekaterina Netchaeva. “To the extent that men feel they can get away with those behaviors in the workplace, we might see them emerge.”
As a result of the increasing popularity of “casual” workplaces, harassment has become more difficult to detect. In Cosmopolitan’s latest survey, 16 percent of women who responded that they had not been sexually harassed in their job also reported hearing explicit comments or remarks.
“Many people still think of sexual harassment as a quid pro quo offer of a promotion in exchange for sex,” Michelle Ruiz writes in Cosmo. “So when faced with sneakier forms of harassment—especially from a co-worker, not a boss—women have a way of questioning themselves. Are you supposed to be the ‘cool girl’ at work, shrugging off your cubemate’s constant stories about fu*** his hookup?”
Organizations with a more hierarchical structure have an advantage when it comes to reporting harassment. Launching companies tend to prioritize quickness and malleability over bureaucracy, which unfortunately leaves those enduring mistreatment nowhere to turn for help, according to Vivian Giang of Quartz.
Moreover, technological advancement has drastically widened the opportunity for potential harassers to act. The Pew Research Center discovered that 40% of adult Internet users have encountered harassment in some way and young women aged 18-24 are especially susceptible to online stalking, sexual harassment, and cruel threats.
As recently as February of last year, one in three female employees reported feeling harassed in their workplace. Unfortunately, even when bravely reporting such misconduct to management can be met with disbelief or belittlement—according to a survey conducted by Cosmo magazine, only 15 percent of women feel that their report was handled equitably.
Companies can generate higher productivity and morale when they invest in their employees by educating them. Women must feel safe to come forward with any issues without fear of being blamed or judged, knowing exactly who to contact if a situation arises. It is essential that these steps are taken for a successful working environment.
With her college years long behind her, Megan has been lucky enough to find a circle of supportive female colleagues in her office. “At least five women have explicitly said that if we were to have any sort of problem with sexual harassment or are made uncomfortable by anyone, we’re to come to them immediately,” she said.
If you need more resources on understanding sexual harassment and your rights, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) provides an essential primer. Take a look at their Workplace Sexual Harassment Resource Guide to become informed on how to recognize potential abuse and how to defend yourself against it.
*Names have been changed
Photo: Hero Images / Getty Images