I became one of the guys to deal with workplace harassment. It didn’t work.
| Reprinted with permission from the
In college, I waited tables. I became friends with one of the male servers where I worked. Once he smacked me on the butt in the kitchen in full view of everyone else, even in front of the owner’s wife. I couldn’t believe it. I spoke up.
“Hey, stop,” I said. “Isn’t that sexual harassment?” He laughed and said not if I liked it. I said that I didn’t, but everyone laughed. There were no consequences.
That was a long time ago. But I was reminded of that moment after reading Amber Tamblyn’s recent column in the New York Times, which detailed her struggle with dealing with sexual harassment. I recalled the myriad times in my career in which I’ve had to deal with inappropriate touching, comments and uncomfortable situations. It’s happened over and over again. I wish I had a manual for how to deal with it. I wish I could tell you I fought back with words every time. But neither of those things are true.
In law school, I worked at a law firm where I reported to two junior attorneys. But the managing partner would sometimes pull me aside to talk. On a regular basis, as I was talking to him, he would reach out and tuck my hair behind my ear. It still gives me a shudder to think of how intimate that move was. And it was done in the hallway in plain view. Should I have said something? Of course. But I was 23 years old and needed the job. Besides, he hadn’t really done anything, right? This is a question I would ask myself over and over and over again.
My approach changed when I turned 25. That was when my boss regularly but discreetly patted me on the hip — even in public. I learned then that I would have to put up with this kind of appropriate behavior. And if that was the case, I would face it with humor and laugh it off. I decided I would become one of the boys.
I’d be a hypocrite if I told you I didn’t contribute to locker room cultures throughout the next 15 years. If I was one of the guys and tossed in the inappropriate jokes, it wouldn’t be targeted at me. If I let it roll off my back, nobody would see when things bothered me. I’m sure I offended others, and for that, I’m sorry. I didn’t want to be one of these women who complain and are “too serious” and “can’t take a joke.”
Somewhere along the line, much more recently than I’d like to admit, I have gone in the other direction. I hit the brakes long before the line of inappropriateness, and I try to speak up when someone else crosses that line. I’m nearly 40 years old, and I wish I had the perfect response to each inappropriate quip. But even now, that’s tough.
Recently, I was at a professional event, and I was wearing a new dress that made me feel amazing. It wasn’t revealing or inappropriate, but it was flattering. I felt good. Then a man shook my hand and kissed me on the cheek (something I still don’t appreciate unless I know you well). Then he leaned in and whispered “God, you look good. You know it, too.” It’s not the first time this man has made inappropriate comments to me. And I’ll sheepishly admit I didn’t say anything because I honestly didn’t know what to say.
Speaking up isn’t always easy, especially in professional situations. But I’m glad I’ve changed my approach. Young female friends have come to me for advice in dealing with an inappropriate boss and asking whether to apply for a job working for someone about whom they have reservations. A city manager told me last winter that I was doing a great job mentoring young female managers, and they were taking in everything I said and did. It was one of the best professional compliments I’ve ever received, and it’s a responsibility I take seriously.
I have been lucky to work with many men who respect women. I’ve also surrounded myself, both personally and professionally, with strong women who are a resource for me. Every single one of them has an example of one of these things happening to them. It’s not unique to me. And while there’s no manual, we can help support one another.
Samantha Harkins is a lobbyist in Lansing who works with local governments. Ms. Harkins is a Vice President of Government Relations, Munetrix. This article originally appeared in the Detroit Free Press and was reprinted here with permission by the author.