When I was in middle school, my sixth grade class went on a field trip to a place called Enterprise Village. Enterprise Village was a venue that allowed kids to simulate being a part of the work force. You could “apply” for jobs, work a short shift in restaurants, shops, or banks, and learn the basics of starting your own business. As we all piled on the bus at the end of the day, I was brimming with excitement to finally get a job. This was, of course, because our teachers failed to inform us of that one in three of the girls present, statistically, would go on to be sexually harassed at our future jobs.
My first job was as a Philly cheesesteak sampler for a food chain in the mall when I was 16. To be honest, in the beginning it wasn’t that bad. I was the only female on the staff, but my cousin (who worked there) and the other guys all treated me with respect and as an equal. I didn’t really mind working there for the first six months or so, until the owner of restaurant hired a new line cook, named Eric*. Over the next eight weeks, I silently rolled my eyes as he objectified and catcalled female customers, until one day I couldn’t tolerate it any more. I took my cousin into the back room and ranted about his disgusting comments, Eric overheard and started menacingly backing me into a corner.
‘Are you jealous I’m not saying them to you? You got something to say?’
Not one for a fight, my cousin ran to go get the owner. Eric got closer and closer to my face, while I said nothing. I was scared. I wasn’t sure if he was going to assault me, but I froze up out of fear that he might.
The owner took me into the office and I explained everything that had happened in the past two months. When I was done, he simply asked me, ‘So, do you want to quit then?’ No apology about the hostile work environment. No calls for Eric to come in so he could fire him. Not even so much as the decency to ask if I was okay. So, feeling defeated, I said yes. I never forgot that day, and I swore if someone else ever harassed me again, I’d fight back. Sometimes though, harassment is more subtle, to the point where you’re not even sure if you’re experiencing it.
I’d got a second job at a plus size clothing store whilst working at my previous job, so it didn’t hurt me financially to quit on the spot. About a year into my stint there, our Store Manager decided we need a stock person, and she hired a guy named Alex*. Alex was in his early twenties and looked more like he should be an Abercrombie model than our stock guy. He was charming and funny, and it wasn’t long before all the ladies developed a bit of a crush on him. It also soon became clear that Alex was a huge flirt. His comments always appeared lighthearted and harmless and made my other co-workers blush and giggle. This made it all the more hard for me to discern whether I was overreacting when he made a comment to me that felt very inappropriate.
We worked side by side putting out stock of new bras and panties during a particularly slow shift. All of a sudden, Alex held up a thong and said, ‘I wonder what you’d look like in this.’ I looked at him confused and giggled unsteadily.
‘You know I’m 17, right?’ I asked. But he didn’t back away from his comment, instead opting to half smile and answer plainly, ‘Yeah.’
I stewed on that experience for weeks without saying anything, until one day I was called into the office by our District Manager; someone else had called the company’s anonymous helpline and reported Alex’s inappropriate comments towards them. More of us had issues with his comments than anyone ever previously vocalised, and when Alex showed up that evening to start his shift, he was promptly fired.
After that, I worked at an arts and crafts store for four painful months. There was no actual leadership in the management there, so the staff just sort of did what they pleased. It got to the point where I felt I had to talk to the Store Manager who, while fairly terrible at her position, was the necessary first point of reference in the hierarchy of directed complaints. I vented my frustrations, particularly with the manager of the framing department, John* who would often ignore calls for back up assistance as he was too preoccupied socialising with employees in the break area. The Store Manager promised to talk to John - and she did - which led to John harassing me for the next three weeks. He would hide my time card so I couldn’t clock in for shifts, knock products off shelves I had just fixed, throw away my lunch, and on two occasions broke into my locker and put his socks in my purse. When I approached the Store Manager again she asked, ‘Well, how do you know it’s him? Do you have any proof?’ No, I didn’t, but surely the timing of these things coinciding with me complaining about his incompetency was enough for her to read between the lines.
I walked out of her office, went to my locker, grabbed my (thankfully sock-less) purse, and walked out of the door and never looked back.
Being freshly unemployed meant getting back on the job interview train, and I quickly did so. I secured an interview at a motorcycle store that was looking for sales associates. On the job application, where it asked ‘reason for leaving previous job’, I answered honestly: ‘harassment’. When I went in for my interview this was one of the first topics brought up, with my interviewer asking me to elaborate.
I explained the situation with John, to which my interviewer replied, ‘Well I’ve got to say I’m a bit worried about you working in this environment. I mean we’ve got a lot of guys who work here and sometimes ‘guy talk’ can be kind of offensive, and they’re not all sunshine and rainbows, you know? This place might be a bit aggressive for you.’ I tried to explain that as long as I wasn’t harassed there wouldn’t be a problem, but I could tell his mind was already made up.
I went on to work at four more places over the years, luckily all incident free, except for one.
I worked at a popular women’s clothing chain for three years, most of which was absolutely brilliant. However, during my last six months working there, a new Store Manager, Linda* decided to make it her personal mission to make my life hell after finding out I was moving to London. She took me in the office one day and asked me point blank if what she had heard was true.
‘I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about this,’ Linda said angrily.
‘I’m…sorry,’ I replied hesitantly, not entirely sure what I was apologising for. I was only obligated to give two weeks notice if I intended to vacate my position, not six months.
As expected, the process of pushing me out of my job early began. I went from getting 38 hours a week to lucky if I was scheduled for 12, which as a manager was unheard of. I was left out of meetings, my work was nitpicked to a ridiculous degree, but worst of all was the taunting. After weeks of being cold shouldered and yelled at, I had a full-on panic attack in the back room. Linda found me red faced and struggling to breathe. She impatiently barked, ‘What’s wrong with you?’
‘I have terrible anxiety,’ I choked.
‘That’s not my problem,’ she said. ‘If you want to quit, then quit. If you want to go home for the day, then go home. I’m here to run a business. I’m not your therapist or your babysitter.’
And she left me there without another word. Linda believed that anxiety and depression were fancy terms society had made up to excuse weakness. She wasn’t going to lay off of me until I quit, and my mental health was going to be destroyed if I had to keep dealing with her pettiness.
This is bullshit, I thought. I’ve done absolutely nothing to warrant this treatment.
So, with eight weeks still to go until I moved, and no options left, I called our District Manager and told her everything. I explained I was afraid of it getting worse, and she assured me she would take care of it. Turns out, me speaking to her boss about her was the nail in the coffin for my time working there. I quit with three weeks to go until my move to London.
Perhaps 11 years old might have been too young to prepare me for all the bullshit to come when I entered the work force. But shouldn’t someone have taught teenage me about harassment and discrimination? Shouldn’t someone have explained the signs to look out for, and what steps to take if it happened to me? Shouldn’t we have been taught the illegal aspects of treatment we may be subjected to, rather than how to find x on a line graph?
Almost half of women who get harassed at work will never say anything out of fear of losing their jobs or retribution from their harasser. Even if she reports it and pursues a lawsuit, the pay out, on average, is only between $13,000 to $14,000 (£10,000 - £11,000). It shouldn’t come to this. We need to better protect women in the work place. Women of color. Trans women (and men). Muslim women. Mentally ill women. Gay, bisexual, and asexual women. Fat women. Less abled women. Sex workers. And so many other types of women. We need to make them feel safe. We need to believe them when they state there’s a problem, and genuinely try to help. We need to provide them with better resources for when they’re afraid of speaking up. We need to show empathy. We need to make them feel valid.
We need to show women in the workplace they matter.