How to Talk about Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

see__hear__speak_no_evil_by_beyond_hope_23-d3bjbro

http://beyond-hope-23.deviantart.com/art/see-hear-speak-no-evil-200776020

I wrote a letter that I can’t seem to send.

Recently, a friend and coworker asked whether she could post my letter on Facebook. I had sent the letter to her in a moment of hesitation following the moment of frustration in which I wrote the letter.

I was sitting at my desk that day, anxious and unable to work, feeling the weight of someone’s presence – an older man, a coworker and mentor, and a friend, who I respected, and who, I had thought, respected me.

There had been an incident. The incident was preceded by weeks of increasing discomfort on my part, following a year of mentoring, productive collaboration, and increasingly close friendship. Now, all that seemed to be over: the mentoring, the collaboration, and the friendship – it couldn’t continue. It had been wrecked. Worse: it had been devalued. I was angry, disappointed, offended, and unsure how to proceed.

After an hour of staring at the screen, stewing with negative emotion under the faint blue of the office fluorescence, I hammered out the letter, but I couldn’t send it. Here it is – the version that my friend posted.

*

Hi (omitted),

Regrettably, as you intuited, I am not okay. In fact, I feel really disturbed. After our conversation over dinner on (date omitted), I feel a lot of anxiety around you, and I am not prone to anxiety. I want to keep collaborating with you, especially as we look forward to an (omitted, work-related); however, I feel that in order to keep working together closely, we are going to have to have a conversation. But, it can be difficult to be direct, and to communicate accurately, in person. I’m writing today with the intention of communicating well.

The way I see it: we have a good friendship. Our friendship has been compromised by the fact that I feel objectified by you at times. This is not new as of (date omitted); however, on (date omitted), you verbalized it very clearly. In response, I asked whether it would surprise you to know that I routinely feel objectified by you. This was very direct on my part, and I expected a response, yet you seemed not to notice. I let it go; however, I find that my negative feelings about it remain.

I’m a grown up. I can deal with negative feelings, as unpleasant as they are when they affect a friendship. As well, I can work with people who don’t care for me or who don’t respect me. It is not my job to be well liked, and it is not our burden to make sure that our colleagues know we respect them. Nor do I intend to be accusatory on those points. Clearly, we enjoy each other’s company, and I think we share a mutual respect.

So. What am I saying? What I am saying is that I don’t want to come to work nervous about whether my coworkers – you – will be evaluating my physical presence: not my wardrobe, not my makeup or lack thereof, not my body. I don’t want to be referred to as “sweetie,” or be touched — not because friends and coworkers can’t speak to each other using terms of endearment or touch each other, but because you have fundamentally changed the way that those things feel. Once, they felt harmless. Increasingly, they don’t.

On (date omitted), you told me that I “walk a line” – a line between sexiness and masculinity, between submissiveness and dominance. You should know: our culture, like so many, tells women that we must choose which part of ourselves to embrace: sexual, or intellectual? This is a false dichotomy. Women, like men, are complex individuals, despite the way in which we are characterized in popular culture. We are encouraged to believe that our power lies within our sexuality, as well as that embracing intellect must be at the expense of being attractive. I reject this dichotomy, as I reject the insinuation that masculinity, as you stated, is equal to intellectual superiority. There is no question that the line you are referring to exists; however, I want you to realize:

I did not create the line. And I do not walk it for you.

Finally, let me say that while I do not want to make you feel like an oppressor, I think, given my words here, you might recognize in your behavior the elements of oppression. I think that we reflect the world that taught us how to be; although as thinking adults, we hope to move toward reflecting the world we choose to create. The things you say and do – they have the power to reinforce the gender binary opposition that victimizes women, and they have the power to subvert it.

In short, I would like my workplace to be free from the weight of the male gaze. I hope that you see what I mean, and that you’re amenable to talking about this, so that we can hit the reset button on things and move forward.

All the best,

(omitted)

*

To me, the letter I’ve written feels excessively diplomatic. I hear myself trying to protect his feelings, to hedge the intensity of my disappointment. I feel like a cliché, like a victim, and I feel weak for not sending the letter, and for not being more forceful.

Before my friend posted the letter, what bothered me was the idea of sending the letter and ruining a relationship. But you didn’t ruin it, my friends say. He did.

I know they are right. What bothers me now is what’s been omitted. The end of the letter reads “All the best, (omitted).”

What’s been omitted is my name, and with it my voice. What’s embraced, what’s repeated, if I don’t send this letter, is the same old story.

9 Comments

  • JaimeRWood says:

    This is an important letter, and I think it should be sent. Like you say, nothing will change if it’s not. Also, you are being diplomatic in the letter, but that’s okay. Diplomacy is a good way to get people to listen without anger or defense. To me, the letter comes across as fair and empathetic, and it asks for the same in return. I’m curious about what you’re afraid of losing by sending the letter. Could your job be at stake? Could this guy escalate things, making it worse? Regardless of what you decide to do, I’m glad you’ve shared the letter here.

  • Nicole Hardina Nicole says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Jaime. Your question of what I have to lose is a good one. I don’t think my job is at stake, or that he would escalate things. I think that at the moment, he remains completely unaware of how negatively his words and actions have impacted me. I hesitate to let that into the light. I think I fear the way things would change. It’s always easier for me to cling to a known reality than to embrace the unknown. Perhaps that’s what I’m really working out.

  • “I did not create the line. And I do not walk it for you.”

    I love the sentences above!

    It is so hard to talk about this because at some level I think we realize that there are “good guys” out there who don’t know that the behavior they have been taught to be manly is in fact oppressive. And then at the same time, why don’t they know that? They have mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, girlfriends–why don’t they find out how their behavior effect the opposite sex?

    If we don’t say anything about this behavior, do we have the right to expect it to stop? Do we have to take every man in our life who exhibits this behavior to task, or is it okay to bring it up as a social debate and hope they are smart enough to catch on?

    At a recent meeting at work, I opposed a superior’s opinion about a female coworker, explaining that unless he was a female teaching science in a pro-male world, he wouldn’t know what it was like to keep authority in a classroom filled with adolescent males. My superior dismissed my comment, worse, male coworkers who I think of as friends and allies dismissed it too. I didn’t know how to press the issue after that without becoming emotional and therefore playing into the stereotype of “hysterical female.” So, I dropped it. I still feel angry and betrayed.

    This is a really long-winded way of saying that whether you send the letter or not, Nicole, you’ve done a huge thing by continuing the conversation about harassment in the workplace. Know that you have a lot of power by writing this letter. Thankfully, the current law gives you that and HR departments must listen to you if you decide to take the issue to them. Know also that if you do send the letter, the response from your coworker may be completely different than what you hoped for/expected. It’s such a loaded issue that logic doesn’t always apply.

    • Nicole Hardina Nicole says:

      Asa, I think this person falls squarely in the category of the sort of good guy you’re describing, and the questions you ask demonstrate why being a good guy is such a poor excuse. I also think that if I don’t say something, I don’t have the right to expect the behavior to stop. But I’m exhausted by the mere thought of bringing every man – even this one man – to task as you say. I suppose this is the central tension, and it’s one I notice in other areas of my life. I tire easily when put in the position of needing to be the ambassador of my worldview. Thanks for your response, and for your good advice.

  • MelinaCR says:

    Nicole, in a sense I agree with Jaime that if we want to be heard we sometimes have to choose to be more diplomatic and empathic than we feel. I also feel strongly that if we want to be heard we sometimes have to smash things. First of all– the idea that it’s ever okay for someone to silence and disempower you. I think we always have to embrace the unknown to effect change. I know that’s easier said than done. I’ve written blog posts right here that examine the discrepancy between my own convictions and behavior, on this very topic. But in the end, we MUST stop omitting ourselves from the conversation. There will be so many other women standing behind us.

  • Mark Strong says:

    You know, I know you’re a pretty strong person and intelligent to boot. I think ‘diplomatic’ is a nice way of saying it has no teeth. I think it’s a great letter, but I don’t feel any particular bite. I don’t know if the offender needs a bite, or if this is written for HR to see, but it’s definitely a step, and you’re not losing anything by sending it. If homedude reads it and feels it’s not strong enough, then the relationship might not have been worth saving. Otherwise, he might ease off. I think the bottom line is that it would be a weight off of you to have taken the step and put the ball in his court. Go for it!

    • Nicole Hardina Nicole says:

      Mark, thanks for your kind words. It feels toothless to me, too. I think that “toothless” might be a great description of the way women often feel in this position; as Melina pointed out, sometimes we need to smash things in order to be heard, but it’s hard to step out of social boundaries that have been reinforced by decades of personal experience. I’ve been thinking about what I stand to gain by sending the letter – your point that it would be a weight off is right on, and all the reason I need. Now for the courage.

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