All the ways the workplace remains silent when women come forward about sexual harassment

Yesterday, NBC news anchor Matt Lauer was fired from the network following a series of sexual assault and harassment allegations from several female co-workers. The alleged incidents all took place during Lauer’s 20 years with NBC. This is yet one more instance of an “open secret” regarding the horrible treatment of women in the workplace, revealed as women come forward about their experiences since the Harvey Weinstein allegations. Here, a contributor discusses her former managers’ lack of action following sexual harassment at a corporate job — and explains how her personal experience represents corporate workplaces at large.

I’ve expunged most of the memories surrounding my stint in Corporate America, but there is one that I’ve been unable to shake for years.

I was working at a large company with more than three hundred employees. Half of us were women, ranging from fresh-out-of-college to retirement age. While many of us held leadership positions, the higher echelon of leaders were all men who claimed – rather vocally — to care about the safety and happiness of their female employees.

One Friday morning, I entered the office to find clusters of women talking quietly, heads closely huddled together with shared expressions of ambient shock. It was a sight that many women find familiar: sharing information that only we can understand amongst one another. By the time I reached my desk, I had learned that a female co-worker was continuously harassed by a male co-worker, who then followed her into the parking garage the night before. He then grabbed her when she refused to engage with him.

This was apparently his way of asking her on a date.

Thankfully, she was able to get away physically unharmed and inform the police, though the resulting trauma was unfathomable.

We’d all had our own varied brushes with sexual harassment and assault, both outside and, for many of us, inside the workplace.

A quiet sadness washed over us – sadness for the woman who just wanted to get home, and sadness for us because the simple act of walking to our car was now documented as a potential risk.

Hours later, the company received an e-mail from our Human Resources department (headed by a man at the time), confirming the event with a brief summary of what had transpired.

The last paragraph read: “…we should always be vigilant when entering or exiting the premises by keeping our eyes open and being aware of our surroundings. Utilizing the buddy system is always a good idea.” It ended with a promise to provide us with any further information, should it become available.

The message didn’t include any language that clearly denounced harassment, which was noticeably odd considering that the assailant was also an employee.

I quickly responded to our rep with an e-mail of my own. I asked for specific language within company policy that outlined consequences for employees who engage in harassment, as well as why that might have been left out of the e-mail. This, I thought, was a fair question; we’ve received e-mails with paragraphs of policy surrounding burning popcorn or heating fish in the microwave.

Instead I received a response that read: “Naturally, we do not condone harassment. Still, we want to be sure that our employees know that they can take charge of their own safety with a few simple precautions.

I was livid. All of the women were.

We were angry — not because the advice was necessarily bad, but because it aligned with the widespread ideology of women somehow being responsible for the actions of their abusers. We were insulted because this sage advice came after a woman was assaulted — but were oddly missing when, mere weeks before, a male co-worker was reportedly stalked by a female ex-employee in the very same garage. Where were the calls for our male co-worker to “employ a buddy system” and take his safety into his own hands? The only thing that made this moment more frustrating was its utter predictability.

A recent poll showed that over half of women in the workplace — 54% to be exact — have experienced sexual harassment in some form. Many of those women experienced said workplace harassment at the hands of someone with influence. Despite the power dynamic, the language often utilized in corporate spheres to discuss this toxic behavior is geared towards women, who are essentially made to believe that their safety is their responsibility. For us, remaining “vigilant” means wearing the right clothes, assuming just the right demeanor, and avoiding certain areas – even if those areas are entirely unavoidable, like the parking garage housing our damn vehicles – in order to avoid abuse. It’s a mindset that has governed us for our entire lives and is very slow to change, even as more women speak out about their reality.

The lack of real managerial support doesn’t only manifest itself through victim-blaming language in harmful emails; it reveals itself in the absence of sexual harassment training across the corporate landscape.

Throughout my many years in various workplaces, I was consistently trained in computer comprehension, privacy policy, customer service protocol, natural disaster planning, and even break room sanitation practices. Never once was I trained in how to properly respect my fellow co-worker’s space and their right to a safe environment. There was never any communication, no matter how brief, regarding appropriate workplace conversation or boundaries between employees — or even the legal ramifications of violating either. Sexual harassment and assault is such a pervasive problem for women at work that it happens in government too, and lawmakers from individual states are having to demand proper training from their Statehouses. For such a common issue, there’s an alarming lack of tactical ways to correct it.

It’s not enough to simply exile the abusers; the entire culture that fosters and protects them has to be leveled and rebuilt on a foundation of respect.

Policies, training, and an unequivocal understanding that violators are not welcome or tolerated must be in place. And when a person informs their company of abuse from a co-worker, the question shouldn’t be “What did you do?” but “What can we do?”