I never thought it could happen to me. I don’t know why; statistics show 43% of women have experienced some sort of sexual harassment in a work environment. But I was different, right? I was poised and professional, close to the head of the organization, and aside from friendly chatter never gave any indication to colleagues or supervisors that I was open to sexual advances.
I was naïve. I was an idiot.
There is no formula for sexual harassment, no explanation for why and when it happens when it does, and it looks different for everyone each time it happens. That’s what makes it harassment – you don’t invite it.
I spent a year or so working for the head of an organization during which time I interacted with executive leadership on a regular basis. Due to my role in the organization, I had to work more closely with some of these senior leaders more than others. Eventually I moved on to a new role within the organization with little to no access to the department head. I maintained cordial relationships with the executive team, saying hello to them in passing, engaging in lengthier conversations when necessary. There was one executive in particular that I had worked on several projects with in my previous role, and after I had moved on we would occasionally engage in light chatter on Twitter. As I mostly used (and now almost exclusively use) my Twitter account for personal content, this executive started direct messaging me about the content of my tweets. It started normal enough, asking if I had thoughts about particular restaurants, favourites, etc. After a few instances of these sorts of direct message conversations taking place, I tweeted about a new restaurant that had recently opened in Ottawa. The executive direct messaged me asking if I had been yet. I replied that I had not, but was hoping to soon. He responded with something along the lines of, “I want to go soon too. I’m going to need a partner in crime though.”
I remember sitting on my couch with my mouth agape. I started shaking and wondering how I had gotten to the place where a married executive felt that it was somehow appropriate to ask me out. I didn’t know how to respond and started running through various scenarios through my head. My immediate options were to either confront him (knowing I had to work with him in a few weeks time) or de-escalate the situation. I chose the latter. Actually, I had the panicked exchange below with a colleague that led to my calling him to tell him the situation. I ended up responding to the message from the executive nearly 24 hours later saying that my boyfriend might not like that. I didn’t have a boyfriend at the time.
Then I decided not to report it. I still regret that decision.
Let’s just pause here for a moment to take a look at the absurdity of the situation:
- A married executive where I work asked me to go with him to a new restaurant as his “partner in crime”.
- Because I had changed roles in the organization and no longer worked directly for this executive’s boss, I was viewed to be a “safe” target.
- The correspondence happened on Twitter, which is an important point as I work in the public sector. All work-related communications (i.e., through work emails, documents, etc.) are subject to Access to Information laws, which means that members of the public or the media can request information on a given topic. Correspondence between private citizens or through private communications channels (i.e., Twitter, Facebook, Gmail) is not subject to Access to Information laws, which means it’s unavailable to the public, the media, or, quite frankly, the employer.
- I had to de-escalate the situation by lying about having a boyfriend as though I was being hit on at a bar
I chose not to report it for several reasons:
- At the time of the incident I was isolated in an unhealthy work environment and didn’t feel as though I had the support of my management to take the necessary recourse actions.
- Without the support of my management chain, my option to report the behaviour would have been to circumvent several levels of management to speak directly to either the head of the organization or their chief of staff, which I worried would end up with me getting in shit with my managers for not respecting the hierarchy.
- The way the message was worded made it so that it could have come across as innocent and not as sexual harassment. (i.e., maybe I was being offered a mentor in a really weird way. This is actually the way women are conditioned to think: “maybe he was just being nice.”)
- I told myself that it wasn’t that bad, that other people have experienced worse, that maybe I was overreacting.
But more than anything, I didn’t report it because I felt ashamed. I was embarrassed that it had happened to me, that it was somehow my fault, that I managed to bring it upon myself. None of that, of course, is true. When I finally mentioned it to the manager I had while I worked on projects with this executive, she said to me, “I saw you interact with him, it was the same as with anyone else: always professional and never giving him reason to think that would be ok.”
To be honest, I still experience shame over it. But as time has passed, that shame has evolved. Yes, the situation still makes me feel gross and anxious, but now, I also feel angry that I didn’t report it, that he gets to continue to think that his behaviour was ok and maybe someone else has gone through a similar experience.
Two and a half years later, I’m ready to talk about it and to tell everyone that I regret not reporting it. Those who have experienced sexual harassment shouldn’t have to live with the shame of the events AND of not reporting it.
But the fact is, we still operate in a culture that breeds hyper- and toxic-masculinity, where being masculine is equated with power and entitlement. These forces were at play in my situation and I’m sure many others. We’re increasingly seeing this toxic-masculinity bubble to the surface the further divided our politics becomes…except it’s not just from those on one end of the political spectrum or the other – it’s both, though some are much more forthright about it than others. The reality is that casual misogyny exists: it’s the sharing of memes on Facebook that use sexist tropes as humour, it’s affirming gender roles, it’s viewing a woman as only as good as the man who helped her along, it’s creating environments where women don’t feel supported; and it’s not supporting women in their fight for equality. It’s these little actions and inactions that contribute to creating places where toxic-masculinity can thrive.
I erroneously thought this whole sexual harassment situation would somehow fade away, when it in fact has reared its ugly head once again. While there is nothing I can do about what has transpired, I can make every effort to create a safe and healthy environment for employees when I become a manager, and to stand up for myself and take the necessary steps to report incidents to the appropriate people in the future. I can’t change what happened and I can’t report it retroactively, but in telling my story and by others telling theirs, we can start the healing process because we matter.
You have to know the rules to break the rules