So What IS Sexual Harassment Exactly?

In 2002 I got a lesson in sexual harassment that I've taken with me to every job since.

Nov 10, 2011 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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In 2002, my first job after college was as an intern at Oprah Magazine where $5.15-an-hour broke me into the business of stringing together sentences for my supper.

Non-too-surprisingly the magazine's staff at the time was super heavy on the estrogen. An assistant editor named Nick hired me and a man named Adam was in charge of making the magazine look pretty, but other than that we were strictly female. It was like a sisterhood. A sisterhood of smart, hard-working and non-sexually harassing lady mag goddesses. Yes, I sort of worshipped these women.

Our offices were in one of those fancy buildings in midtown Manhattan where every magazine's fancy offices are. And although Oprah's staff (at the time) wasn't uber-black, the building management staff was. Bascially from the security guards, to the maintenance guys to the mail room, black men were everywhere you looked just before buzzing into the ultra-feminine embrace of the 15th floor. It was getting up there that was the problem.

I noticed it on my first day. The maintenance guys were always extra friendly. They held the door to the elevator open if I was rushing in late, they pushed the button without being asked and said "Have a nice day" when I raced through the sliding doors to get to my cubicle. They were nice.

But within a week, niceness turned into familiarity, which turned into uncomfortable physical closeness in a claustrophobic space. One man in overalls and cornrows told me I was pretty and asked if I had a boyfriend. I laughed it off, smiled stupidly, then waited for the BING! in silence.  That pretty much became my daily morning routine--romantic overtures, feigned ignorance and sliding doors.

I didn't say anything to the older editorial assistants who took me to lunch to gossip about the office because, well, I wanted to gossip about the office. I didn't want to ruin things by being new to the worforce and overly sensitive about some seemingly harmless elevator flirting. Also, these guys were black, which added a sticky solidarity issue to the mix. Maybe they just wanted to make me feel welcome?

By my second month in, I'd learned to avoid certain men on my way to the elevator bank, pretending to look through my purse as they stepped up to press the button. "That's okay, I'll get the next one."

Anytime I had to actually ride up with one of the maintenance workers I tried my best to be polite and aloof, donning a stank face mask I'd learned on the streets of Compton and Harlem. The muscles of my cheeks only relaxed into a smile after I'd reached the 15th floor.

I figured all this was normal. That every woman in the workforce had to navigate past ambiguous flirtation. "I know it when I see it" seemed like a decent litmus test for sexual harassment, but as a corporate newbie I hadn't actually seen it. The older girls, girls in their mid-20s, had.

One of the maintenance men asked an editorial assistant, who was also black, out on a date. He'd approached her in the elevator many many times before and she'd made it clear that she wasn't interested and that the situation was inappropriate and uncomfortable. He persisted. And instead of just dealing with it, she complained. He got fired.

During the official review process, she asked me if I'd ever felt uncomfortable with these men on the elevator. I said yes.

"Well you realize that's not okay, right?"

I explained that I figured because they didn't technically work with me or were in any position to fire or promote me, that it wasn't within my rights to do anything but deal. I added that the class issue and the race issue all made me insanely uncomfortable too. "Uncomfortable" was a word that got used a lot.

She nodded then leaned in close, "I get it, but in the end all that doesn't matter. Inappropriate is inappropriate." I've taken that with me to every job ever since.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment is:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.

A "harasser" can be a woman, a man, an agent of the employer, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker or a non-employee. Sexual harassment can occur without economic injury to or discharge of the victim. The harasser's conduct must be unwelcome.

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I'm sure all this was in my employee handbook or something. And I'm sure I glanced at it, but since no one was Clarence Thomas-level I figured I wasn't on Anita Hill's.

For me, and probably at lot of women my age, Hill is a superhero. In 1991, when Hill's public accusations made her the poster child for sexual misconduct, I was going through puberty. As a new woman I learned through Hill's bravery what a woman looks like in the face of dominant maleness. Her televised testimony about Thomas's disgusting overtures was confirmation that a woman could out a man in the public square. Thomas's confirmation to the Supreme Court confirmed that too often a man's character and his career are not mutually exclusive.

Twenty years after "America's watershed debate on sexual harassment" and a powerful man can still cry "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks." Hermain Cain, the rando Republican presidential candidate, has been accused of sexual harassment by no less than four women. Thus far nothing's come of it besides endless newspaper column inches. Cain is still a front-runner.

It's a he said, she said moment like so many others. Unfortunately, that can't be fixed. From high school to the highest court in the land, words are still just words until proven otherwise. But what we can teach our daughters, our co-workers and our interns is this simple and symmetric string of words: "Inappropriate is inappropriate."