Monday, October 22, 2018

#MeToo: Sexual Harassment at Work

I've actually avoided weighing in on this topic for a while but ultimately decided it's a conversation worth starting (or, more accurately, jumping into in the age of #MeToo).

I have dealt with sexual harassment here and there, in many countries, at work or off-the-clock, from many different types of people. Unfortunately, the types of harassment experiences I have had seem all too common based on both public data and anecdotal evidence from those whom I know personally - especially among women. As a small sample, here are a few of the situations I've had at work since joining the Foreign Service in 2017:

  • A student used my dress (from the event in the first photo of this post) as an example when trying to talk about how different people might define fake news differently. He said, "I would consider what you're wearing a miniskirt, but to you that might be the longest thing you own." Nobody (including me) said anything, but the 60+ person audience enjoyed a laugh at my expense.
  • A man at an outreach event asked me to escort him to the United States. When I politely said no, he asked me if I had any younger sisters who would and demanded contact information for a female sister or friend to be his companion and entertainment in the United States.
  • After I concluded a speaker program (again on fighting fake news), an audience member came up to me, slid me a folded piece of paper, and whispered, "This is not fake news." I took it back to my office and opened it to find it said, "I Love You" and included his number. The same guy followed up a few days later on my work email with something along the lines of, "Remember me? I'm the guy with the Real News."
  • A contractor we had paid to arrange decorations an event for us cornered me mid-set-up and asked for my number. When I refused, he insisted he needed to get to know me better and that I had to give him my number. He became visibly angry and threw a tantrum when I continued to say no, so I walked away but then had to stand awkwardly around setting up my table while he finished the decorations and stopped every few minutes just to follow me around with his eyes. Eventually, the other women I was working with sent me away so he could finish the job we had already paid him to do.
  • A photographer I had never met or seen before but whom I needed to pay for work he had done for the Embassy surprised me by coming straight to my desk, cornering me, and starting our conversation with, "Wow, nobody told me you were so beautiful." He was not an Embassy employee, and I had asked him to call me for us to meet outside. I didn't realize he'd be able to find me on his own.
  • Multiple men have come up to me and snapped photos of my face or body and run off before I could object or ask them to delete the photo.

In a lot of ways, these things are just a natural part of being a professional woman in an imperfect world. I do think that they happen more often in public-facing jobs such as mine and that pretending they don't happen doesn't make them go away. So instead of staying silent, I thought I'd share some of the best advice I've received on this issue in hopes that it helps some other woman who has to face these same situations at work:

  • Prepare in advance. It really helps to practice what you want to say in situations that make you uncomfortable before they happen, especially if you (like me) often struggle to find words in the moment.
  • Sometimes it's okay to make someone else uncomfortable. Obviously, there is serious personal judgment involved in choosing your battles and knowing when to grin and bear it because of circumstances outside your control. At the same time, I've found I have sometimes been so afraid of making someone else uncomfortable and embarrassed that I allowed myself to feel uncomfortable and embarrassed instead.
  • Find support (especially in your chain of command). Thankfully, my bosses have always been supportive of me in these situations. Their encouragement, open door policy, and efforts towards creating a better work environment for everyone has gone a long way to helping me in these challenges.
  • Understand that people define sexual harassment differently. Some may not consider the situations I described above as sexual harassment. As far as I'm concerned, what matters is that I found the behavior inappropriate and the attention unwanted in those cases. I find it's not worth my time to try to defend and justify my feelings of discomfort to everyone around me.

I hope that addressing this difficult subject has been helpful to at least one reader out there. If you have experiences of sexual harassment at work, thoughts on how we can make things better, or tips to share, I hope you'll take a moment to comment below. Thank you for reading!

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