Living up to his usual high standard, John Oliver investigated another hard-hitting topic in his recent episode of Last Week Tonight which focused on sexual harassment against women in the workplace. As he emphatically repeated, this is a topic that needs to be discussed and the American public needs to take actions to stop this cycle of abuse. Yet, it was unclear as to what those actions should be other than to have a greater level of social consciousness and for men and women to speak up if they witness or experience acts of sexual harassment. But what if you speak up and no one hears it or cares to intervene?
While I applaud Oliver’s efforts, as I watched the episode, it became quite clear that he has very little personal experience with the subject. I was thrilled to see him interview feminist icon Anita Hill, asking her important questions such as what should a man do if he witnesses sexual discrimination? However, I was frustrated that the interview failed to address the fact sexual harassers rarely act in the presence of witnesses. For example, I live off a major street in a relatively safe neighborhood outside of Boston and every day without fail – rain or shine – I get catcalled by men in passing cars as I walk to school. I hate the idea of blaming a woman’s sartorial choices for a man’s poor behavior, but let me just state for the record, that this happens consistently, no matter what I’m wearing; be it a sundress or a huge puffy snow jacket.
What may seem like a harmless act of boorishness, ruins my walk every single day. These men make me feel like I am on display and being watched. Occasionally, they slow down their cars and track behind me for a minute, making me genuinely fear for my life. This experience is not unique to where I live or to me. This kind of behavior – coming from a surprisingly large percentage of the male population – is commonly experienced by pretty much all women. Yet, never have I ever been catcalled in the presence of my husband, even when walking down the same street where catcalling is a daily occurrence. So, what’s the solution, never leave my house alone?
When it comes to harassment in the workplace, the interview seemed to take for granted that women would have avenues where they could voice their complaints and be acknowledged by their companies. Yes, women should speak up when they experience discrimination at work, but what if there are no systems in place to do anything about these kinds of complaints? Before starting grad school, I worked as a full-time vendor to one of the biggest tech companies in the world. Even in a work environment that prides itself for its diversity and liberality, sexual harassment by male employees was a regular occurrence. I was working as a podcast producer for a while and one of my regular guests refused to take direction from a female producer and even worse, often refused to speak to me at all. He often insisted on playing an inefficient and downright weird game of telephone with my male audio producer in which he would only take my directions if they were repeated to him by another man. That audio producer expressed his deep discomfort with the situation – which was helpful to me – but it didn’t solve the problem. Not only was I uncomfortable, but the quality of the podcast was suffering, and so, I spoke to my female manager who was employed by the tech company and oversaw hired out vendors such as myself. Her response was that she simply didn’t care. I was to do everything in my power to keep this guest on the show happy or I could lose my job.
As a vendor, I had no access to HR at the tech company or ability to report the issue beyond my manager, even though it was affecting my work productivity. In many ways, my manager and the guest on the show were my customers as I relied on the work they gave me to keep my contract with the tech company. I had nowhere to turn and I couldn’t afford to quit my job. I was stuck.
You might be thinking that this situation is unique to me, but keep in mind that vendors and contractors compromise a massive amount of the workforce for many of the world’s largest companies. Even if you are fortunate enough to work directly for one of these companies, do they have systems in place to deal with sexual harassment? Do you know who you can speak to if your manger isn’t an option? What happens when you are mistreated by a customer whom your company has no jurisdiction over, but whom they have a vested interest in keeping happy?
Again, the question comes down to, what can I do? The answer is, not much. It doesn’t seem to matter if I complain to my manager or if I wear a huge winter parka. These men will continue to behave the way they have been taught to behave. Some American men have been taught to believe that a woman’s only value derives from her appearance and that women are sexual objects created for their enjoyment. They feel comfortable shouting at us from their cars because they believe we are only on that street for their visual pleasure. They feel threated taking direction from us in a work environment and devise ways to belittle us. Our culture allows these men to proliferate because it focuses on instructing women to act on the defensive – to complain to HR or to carry pepper spray – rather than on keeping men from acting on the offensive.
Oliver keenly pointed out that this sexual harassment conversation is nothing new in American culture. It’s the same conversion we’ve been having for decades. The conversation we need to have as a country is how to ensure the next generation of men is raised with a more conscientious and forward thinking set of values. The upside is that I do believe many men are beginning to acknowledge that sexual harassment is a problem in the first place. We see this in the comments from men saying that they are worried about interacting with women, afraid that they don’t know when they are crossing the line. All I have to say is, welcome to the club! As women, we go through life regularly feeling ill at ease around members of the opposite sex. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where that didn’t have to be the case?