Why don’t we speak up? Now, granted, I can’t answer that for all women; I can only answer it for myself, based on my experiences. Forewarning: this article may be a trigger for anyone who’s experienced harassment. It is going to get personal and may sound like a rant, but its intent is to provide insight into why I personally haven’t spoken up in the past. I am hoping to reach at least one person reading this who can relate, get an understanding of where I’m coming from, and possibly take away new information that they weren’t aware of before.
Maybe you’ve seen on the news or even heard from a friend, family member, or coworker about a woman being assaulted, harassed, etc. who waited to tell someone or didn’t tell anyone at all. This isn’t uncommon, and it doesn’t surprise me. “In 2016, the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released a comprehensive study of workplace harassment in the United States, which concluded that ‘anywhere from 25% to 85% of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.’ It’s a strikingly wide gap, but one that is very substantial even in its most conservative estimate — statistically predicting one in four people are affected by workplace sexual harassment.” (IWPR.org)
Let me tell you about my experience. I was 19 and working in a factory, 10-12 hour shifts 6-7 days a week. It was a demanding job, but that’s beside the point. During my time there a man befriended me. For his privacy, I’ll say his name was “Bob.” He was 60 years old, married, and had two children around my age. At 19, I was shy, not very confident, and felt out of place in the factory. Bob was an interesting man who was smart, quirky, funny, and we worked together on the same machine multiple days in a row from 3 p.m. – 2 a.m.
Early on working with Bob, we had good conversations and seemed to share similar interests. He often made me laugh with stories about his children and concerts he attended. As time went on, he started to get friendlier with me. He began touching my shoulder during conversations. Sometimes when he would pass by me, he would get very close and touch my side. Other times he would put his hands on my hips. This made me uncomfortable, but at the time I just thought this was how friendly guys acted and I should just let it go.
One day during our shift, Bob approached me and told me about an explicit dream he had about himself and me. As he described it to me, I grew more and more uncomfortable and started to feel anxious. I knew this was inappropriate and that he had likely crossed a line. I hemmed and hawed for a little bit on whether or not this was worth mentioning to anyone. I realized that maybe I should at least let my boss know and see what he thought about the situation.
I told my boss, “John”, and asked him not to say anything to anyone because I was already nervous enough opening up to him about it. He didn’t say much and kind of just shook his head in disbelief. A couple of days later, John let me know that as a manager, it was his responsibility to report the situation to HR (understandable). HR had a discussion with Bob and told him he needed to apologize to me. I felt embarrassed and nervous, and waited anxiously for when the apology would come around. I was so nervous, I almost hoped it wouldn’t happen.
After that took place, I asked if I could work on a different machine. A few more days went by, and I was put back on Bob’s machine. While working, Bob approached me, and I distinctly remember what he said. “I can’t believe you told on me. I thought we were friends, and I meant nothing by it. I’m going to lose my job, my wife is going to leave me, and my children are never going to speak to me again. I was told I need to apologize to you, but the only thing I’m sorry for is that you’ve ruined my life.” I kind of just stood there in awe, feeling uncomfortable, bad, sad, and wondering if I did the right thing. I was second-guessing myself and felt alone.
Circling back to the beginning of my article on “Why don’t we speak up?”, this is why. I will never forget that moment or how I felt. It was a terrible feeling that has never fully left me, and I can’t imagine I’m the only person who’s been put in a situation like that. Again, back to the statistics, one in four women is sexually harassed in the workplace, but how many of them don’t report it? And what’s their reason behind not reporting? I know why I didn’t want to speak up. I felt embarrassed, ashamed, alone, and as if I’d done something wrong.
The truth is, no one should ever feel how I felt in that moment. Looking back, I know the situation was handled incorrectly and what Bob did was inappropriate. After my experience, what I would say to women of all ages is “speak up.” Even though the situation may not be handled in the manner we expect it to be, speak up. When we do so, we’re not only advocating for ourselves; we’re advocating for other victims of harassment as well.