'I reported my boss for sexually harassing me—here’s what it was like’
Carrie, depressed and demoralized, decided to cut her losses and quit her job.
Since then, the number of allegations against other well-known men—from Matt Lauer to Louis C.K.—reinforce the fact that the problem of sexual harassment is staggering.
Yet for every celebrity woman who shares her #MeToo story, and for every powerful man newly accused of sexual misconduct, there are many regular women who have suffered similarly—but don't have a public platform to talk about it. A recent poll conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post found that 54 percent of women reported experiencing unwanted sexual advances from men, and three in 10 women say that unwanted attention came from a coworker.
It's never easy to talk about these experiences, much less file a formal complaint. So we asked two women who've been there to share what their experiences of reporting their bosses for sexual harassment were really like. Here's what they had to say.
They said: "Go talk it out with him face-to-face."
If you've never been in the position of being sexually harassed at work, it may be easy to think, "Well, I'd never put up with that!" But it's a more complex issue than most people realize, says Amy*, a police records technician who endured inappropriate harassment from her boss, coworkers, and even police officers.
When, at one point, a maintenance worker made a comment about her vagina and touched her in a sexual way while she was working, she reported it to her boss and HR. Their response? "Go talk it out with him face-to-face." Unsurprisingly, this didn't stop the harassment. Amy began to realize that it was indicative of a larger problem: The police department had a toxic culture—one that allowed and even encouraged harassment of women.
Over the next few years, things only got worse for Amy. In addition to her having to endure catcalls and comments about her breasts, a police officer once followed her into a restroom, groping her and trying to kiss her. Another officer rubbed his genitals on her foot, and a third officer grabbed her butt, pinned her between his legs, and said he wanted to have a threesome with her. She reported the incidents to her higher-ups, but they dismissed her claims. Some of these superiors even ended up participating in the harassment. Still, she tried not to let it affect her job, and in the midst of all this she was even named employee of the year. "I was shocked actually and certainly did not expect it," Amy says of the award, saying it made her feel "guilty" for making complaints against her colleagues. "Honestly it felt like reverse psychology—like if they gave me this award, then I'd have to be a model employee and stop complaining."
They said: "Try not to let him get under your skin."
This type of frat-like atmosphere doesn't only persist in male-dominated places like police departments, however, as Carrie* can attest. She was working as an assistant manager at a department store when her manager started to harass her. He had a company-wide reputation for inappropriate behavior. Despite telling Carrie he wanted to make a "fresh start," he made sexual comments and hugged her and other women, even when they made it clear they didn't want to be touched. She wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, but eventually it became too much. She reported it to HR, and like Amy, was counseled to talk it out with the offender.
Her manager's abuse escalated when she became pregnant. He made it clear he disapproved of her choice to have a baby, she says, and started watching her like a hawk, nitpicking her work and criticizing her to other employees. After Carrie returned from maternity leave, she says he purposely scheduled her in ways that made it hard to take care of her baby, refusing to give her days off when she needed them and even timing her while she pumped breast milk on her break, cutting her off if she went even one minute over her allotted time. When she reported the harassment, she was told, "You guys just have a personality conflict, just stick to the job and try not to let him get under your skin." "It always went nowhere," Carrie says.
They said: Just "go along" with the joke
Victims often hear things like "Can't you take a joke?" or "You're just too sensitive," making them doubt the reality of their own experience. This is what happened to both Amy and Carrie. Carrie says her boss reported her for a long list of supposed violations and infractions, so her claims were dismissed as "sour grapes." It made her second-guess her every move. "I became a nervous, insecure wreck," Carrie says. Meanwhile, Amy says even one of her female supervisors told her that she was overreacting and that she should "go along" with the jokes.
Both women were ultimately confronted with a terrible choice: quit, or keep the job they love and endure the harassment. While they each tried to stick it out for a while, eventually they both hit a breaking point.
For Amy, it was after she dropped off her son at school one morning on the way to work. "I contemplated causing a bad car accident, just so that I wouldn't have to go to work for awhile," she says. "I was so, so exhausted by all of it. Something had to give."
As all of her attempts to address it internally had failed, she decided to sue the city, which turned out to be a long, difficult process. She had to detail everything that happened, reliving the trauma in front of people looking to pick apart her story. "My employers tried to hide and protect themselves by belittling and scorning me, throwing doubt [on my testimony] by digging for any 'dirt' on me," she says. "The whole time, they denied they ever did anything wrong. It was mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting."
Carrie's breaking point came when, in a bizarre twist, she says her manager pressured one of her coworkers into making a false harassment claim against her. This ended up with Carrie, not the manager, being disciplined for sexual harassment.The experience was heartbreaking on many levels, she says. Not only did it make going to work a nightmare, but it also made her realize a painful truth about herself: When previous women had accused her manager of harassment, she hadn't believed them at the time, nor had she offered them support.
"That's the real story about this whole harassment thing: Women have seen it, dealt with it, hell, even participated in it in order to keep jobs," Carrie says. "I finally realized that I had helped cultivate a culture of disregard towards harassment in my workplace. I didn't support the first woman who came forward. I shrugged off the next as being a troublemaker. Then when it was my turn? Guess what? I was not supported and shrugged off."
Carrie, depressed and demoralized, decided to cut her losses and quit her job. She eventually found another job—one with a much different workplace culture that she loves being a part of every day. Yet she worries because her old manager is still in his job, in a position of power over other vulnerable young women, and there isn't anything she can do about it.
As for Amy, after a year of legal back-and-forth, the city decided to settle, awarding her $100,000 in damages (of which her lawyer got $40,000). But even though she "won," she still has mixed feelings about the experience. Because of the settlement, none of the offenders were disciplined, much less fired. "It's been very challenging. I still struggle driving into the city I used to be employed in and get anxious when I see a squad car near that city," she says. "After I left the job, I literally feared for my life and my safety as I was told, 'You just don't cross the police.'"
She ended up changing careers entirely and now refuses to tell anyone where or for whom she is working, out of fear of retaliation by her former employer. But she's adamant the experience won't stop her. "Thankfully, my faith and my inner determination to not allow them to win keeps me moving forward," she says. "Overall, I'm glad I stood up for myself and reported it. It's important to talk about these things. But I do feel the system that was supposed to help me, failed me."
Amy and Carrie are two different women, in different fields, in different areas of the country, yet they tell such similar stories of abuse and power. They highlight just how vast, how broad, and how common the experience of sexual harassment in the workplace is—and how challenging it still is to confront it. People often ask why more women don't come forward to report harassment. This is why.
*Names have been changed
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