Sexual harassment in the workplace – what’s changed?

Five things I learned as a young reporter in the 1970s

“You are a conniving young woman who has somehow worked her way up to a position where no one wants her.”

“Her” was me: 21 years old, just out of journalism school, working for a small town newspaper in southern Ontario. The speaker of those unspeakable words was several decades older than me and the alpha male: the City Editor of the newspaper.

I wasn’t quite sure what I had done wrong. Studied the craft, worked hard, progressed within a few months from writing obituaries and social columns to covering the Board of Education and City Council meetings. But while I wasn’t what I would call “young and pretty”, I was young and female.

Turned out the 50+ editor fancied me. When I spurned his advances, he turned his venom on me and issued that charming sentence above for the entire newsroom to hear. Worse, he literally stalked me for a period of time; assigned me to cover meetings at night in the dangerous city across the US border, where even the male reporters didn’t want to go; refused to speak to me, instead leaving vitriolic notes in my typewriter, and so on. He was determined I wouldn’t advance any further and he won. The stress, the pity of my male colleagues, and the sheer fear for my personal safety – it was all too much. In short order, I quit.

I don’t actually remember knowing the term sexual harassment in the workplace in the 1970s. But I do remember it happening.

Fast forward to 2014: the recent disturbing stories about a certain CBC male celebrity and his alleged, appalling violence against women – including some he worked with – has unleashed a tidal wave of public outrage and refreshed a conversation about sexual harassment, in and out of the workplace.

Some people are puzzled by the fact that the women did not come forward to report this abuse – others, not so much. The fact that women still think no one will listen, or worse that there will be repercussions for them, gives us all pause that this still happens – in this day and age!

What does sexual harassment in the workplace mean to you? Something you have experienced or observed? Something you think ended with the advent of women’s liberation many years ago?

Here’s what it means to me and what I learned – not only in that newsroom in the 1970s but, sadly, have continued to experience over nearly four decades since:

It’s just wrong – The exploitation of one human being by another is just plain wrong. When it becomes sexual exploitation, it can be worse. Consensual or not, sex involving a person in power and one whose advancement depends on that person in power, is dangerous and complicated and inevitably leads to bad things.

 

Who do you tell? In my case, my male colleagues may have been shocked by what they saw happening but they didn’t do anything about it. The chain-smoking female reporter in the corner, who had been with the paper for years and was feared by all, was probably my best bet for help but I didn’t have the courage to ask her. I should have.

 

What should I have done? Stood up to him, told him that his behavior wasn’t acceptable, not gone to dinner with him in the first place. All wise thoughts – from the perspective of four decades later. I like to think that my nieces, my friends’ daughters, the young girls next door would all be wise and brave enough to do these things today.

 

What was he thinking? Who knows, but I think that City Editor had his own demons, his own reasons for doing what he did. No excuse, but what conditions created an environment where he could get away with such exploitation? More importantly, what have we done to ensure that such conditions no longer exist?

 

What did I learn? Put simply: that following your own instincts and standing up for yourself – in whatever way you can do that – is always the right thing to do.

I am saddened by these recent stories of sexual harassment, violence even. But I am hugely heartened by the heightened awareness, by the women who are coming forward to talk about their experience with the allegedly abusive CBC celeb, and the thousands more who have been given renewed license to think, feel and act differently.

 

We each need to consider what we can do to advance the discussion, and more importantly the actions, that will finally put an end to sexual harassment in the work place.

Thank you,