Like many of you, I watched my Facebook and Twitter feeds fill with posts stating Me Too, or #metoo. The idea, credited to Alyssa Milano (@alyssa_milano,) is to show the pervasiveness of gender-based harassment and how it touches many/most/every woman. This morning, I realized that the really sad part is that I was not surprised in the slightest by the fact that so many women I know have been harassed. I *expected* it and would have been honestly surprised to hear from a woman who had never had an experience of harassment. Those two small words - “me too” - can’t convey the huge number of “minor” harassments that shape how women are viewed. The media reports on the “Sensational Harvey Weinstein Shower Masturbation Incident” and the “Outrageous Donald Trump Pussy Grabbing Comments” and the media should report on these incidents because those things completely suck. But the media can’t report on the subtle, every day happenings that make up the vast majority of harassment. It makes me wonder if people who haven’t thought about the spectrum of harassment might actually start to disbelieve the sheer numbers of women commenting “#metoo.” What I personally would like to see is #metoo and the hashtag #thisisharassment, with quick story about a time that you felt harassed that didn’t involve watching a power-hungry oligarch touch his withered privates. I would love to see stories about things that many men and yes, women, have unknowingly done during their lifetime that are actually harassment.
People have different comfort levels with revealing their pain. But if you are comfortable sharing, I believe it could provide a window into the greater problem and help demonstrate what subtle and pervasive harassment looks like. Studies have shown that personal storytelling is a great way to shape moral values. I am sometimes uncomfortably open about my life experiences, and for better or worse you are reading this blog, so I’ll go first.
#metoo #thisisharassment: I worked for years in a Fortune 500 tech company in the early-to-mid 90’s. I was an entry-level marketing manager and was on a conference call that had several levels of our internal management in a room and our client on speaker phone, with several levels of their management in their room. When my turn came on the agenda, the VP said something like “OK, Michelle bring us up to speed on marketing.” My director, who was two management levels above me, piped in with “Oh, hey Michelle! I brought the shoes that you left under my bed last night.” There was general laughter in the conference room and in the client’s conference room. I was intensely embarrassed and as I write this today – more than 20 years later – I am surprised by the feelings of anger and embarrassment that are still flooding through my body. But at the time I just smiled through my intense, red face. This was a no win for me. I could start a one-person tirade about deserving respect that would at best make everyone uncomfortable and at worst, impact the client relationship and my own job. I could make a comment like “No, those size 12 men’s stilettos are probably your own” which would have gotten a laugh as well, at the cost of throwing someone else under the harassment bus, which is a mode of transportation no one wants to take. So I just smiled. The really important thing to note is that this was not an evil guy, he was just a regular guy. He was no Weinstein, no Trump. I wasn’t being asked to put out - just to shut up and smile. I can guarantee that even if he is reading this, he has forgotten the incident. In retrospect, he was an untactful person who was trying to create a feeling of bonhomie by getting a laugh and he didn’t mind referring to me sexually through what he saw as a “harmless joke” in order to do so. But it wasn’t a harmless joke to me. After that, every time I worked with that client account, I worried that they thought I was sleeping with a director and didn’t respect me. I avoided that account. I distrusted my management. I was less effective as an employee. I lost and the company lost.
Harassment because of gender comes in so many forms. It is having attention called to your sexuality or body parts, like what happened to me. It is being devalued because you are in a role where women are not the norm, like this summer’s Google female engineer manifesto. It is being asked if you are “on the rag” because you have an issue, when a male colleague would just have their concerns addressed. It is being judged more on what you wear and what you look like instead of your inherent skills, like when male actors or politicians are asked questions about their jobs and female actors or politicians are asked questions about their attire. It is worrying about walking by a group of men, just because they will make comments about your body and you will feel unsafe because you have a body. It is things that I have never experienced... issues specific to women of color or the LBGTQ+ community, which are very real. Understanding what these issues look like and how they make a woman feel is the next step to understanding how pervasive harassment is and how to disengage from it. I would love to see more stories about the “small” things. I would love to see #thisisharassment. Very few people think Harvey or Donald were in the right, but many people may have no idea that what they do every day might just be wrong.