11.03.11

Hounded by Harassment

The Herman Cain allegations were hidden when female staffers reached quiet settlements. Lauren Ashburn on why she, and other women, have chosen silence.

Sexual harassment, suddenly back in the news, is not just something that happens to other people.  Thousands of women, old, young, thin, fat, short, and tall, grapple with unwelcome sexual advances perpetrated in the shadows of cubicles and swanky executive offices. 

I’m one of them.  And I didn’t do a thing about it. 

Let me set the scene(s):  As my client and I ride in a taxi through midtown Manhattan traffic with a colleague in the front seat, his hand drifts to my knee.  If we were alone, he says, we would really have fun. Really, I think as I slide out of reach—dream on and get your @#$% hand off of me. 

While seated in my boss’s office, he tells me that his male boss mentioned that I had “quite a rack” as his eyes wander to my breasts.

And then there’s my personal favorite:  Wow, says my colleague, you really look great.  You’ve lost weight, he declares, as he takes a swipe at my bottom. 

Crystal clear examples of sexual harassment, right?  In my mind, and most likely in the minds of HR executives, definitively yes.  These men in positions of power engaged in heinous acts of harassment designed to intimidate, humiliate, or at a minimum, assert their dominance. 

All of these incidents occurred, not at the dawn of my career as you might imagine, but when I was an established professional by successful men who should have known better. 

The sexual-harassment accusations dogging presidential candidate Herman Cain and his initial attempts to brush them off are all too reminiscent of the way corporate bosses dismiss their accusers.

Sexual harassment happens all the time, in corporate America, all over the world.  And women like me do not report it for fear of being drawn into a highly contested legal dispute or even losing our jobs.

So when the news broke that one of the women who claimed Cain sexually harassed her in the 1990s had decided she did not want to go public, I understood completely.  Her lawyer quoted her as saying she did not want to become another Anita Hill and let the controversy take over her life. 

Hill’s sexual-harassment accusations against Clarence Thomas played out for days on national television in 1991 during a polarizing “he said, she said” battle to confirm him as a Supreme Court justice. She is now a household name whose claim to fame is an unsuccessful attempt to take down a powerful man nominated by a president. And this moniker, despite the fact that she is an accomplished law professor, defines her public persona.

My fellow silent contingent of “victims” does not want to go through life known primarily for speaking up about a horny man’s indiscretions.  We want to be acknowledged for our brains, our business acumen, and our integrity, not as a “problem” that has to be “dealt with” by a most likely male-dominated corporate hierarchy.

The decision to shut up and handle harassment ourselves often trumps invasion of privacy, loss of valuable time and energy needed to raise a family, and potential humiliation.  Getting to that decision was, for me, a very painful process.  My anger demanded justice, demanded that that these men be held accountable.  But my fervent desire for a tranquil personal life won in the end.

Instead, we ask for transfers, we work at home, we change companies.  Or we simply learn how to artfully rebuff advances by subtly threatening to blow the whistle on despicable and degrading behavior.  Like so many things in life, it’s a choice based on a very personal cost/benefit analysis. 

But let’s be perfectly clear.  I am not saying that women—or even men, who comprise a small percentage of cases—should not report sexual harassment. 

My anger demanded justice, demanded that that these men be held accountable.

Not every claim is valid, of course, but the system, in many cases, works.  In 2007, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission resolved almost 12,000 cases of sexual harassment, and victims received almost $50 million in compensation.  This does not include money that victims won through litigation.

I am not advocating a bury-your-head-in-the-sand mentality. Nor do I believe that sexual harassment should simply be tolerated in corporate America.  I admire the women who choose to speak out. 

As the ranks of no-nonsense women grow in the upper echelons of all professions, maybe these unwanted attacks and insults—like the allegations swirling around Herman Cain—will diminish. And maybe it will become easier for the next generation of fellow close-mouthed colleagues to find their voices.