Office Space

I had been at my internship just about a month when one of my male coworkers asked me if I wanted to grab lunch later that week. I replied with a polite maybe. I’m slightly socially awkward; I’ll admit it. And I wasn’t sure if he was asking me to be friendly—it was a small office after all—or if he was asking me in terms of a date. I immediately asked my group chat what to do. The verdict was to drop into the conversation that I had a boyfriend and then grab lunch as friends if he was still interested. But I didn’t want to get lunch with him as a friend. The conversations he tried to initiate between us and just his general presence left me feeling uncomfortable.

About two weeks later, I found myself in a room alone with him.

“You want to get that lunch with me Friday?” He asked. I responded that I was probably going to bring something from home. “Don’t bring something,” he continued. I started making up other excuses.

I said I was going out to dinner right after work for a friend’s birthday, that I might just snack. “We can just grab something light.” He wouldn’t take the hint, or maybe he just wouldn’t accept it.

I brought it up to my roommate that night. I was hunched over our kitchen island, and she was at the stove making dinner. I wasn’t sure if I was overreacting when I told her. He wasn’t directly harassing me, at least in the ways I pictured harassment—explicitly sexual comments, physical touching. He was just making me uncomfortable, albeit to the point where I dreaded going to work and seeing him. That is harassment, she told me.

Dr. Melanie Matson, the Director of Emerson’s Violence Prevention and Response (VPR), agrees with that judgment. She says, “I’m a big believer in trusting one’s gut. And so if I’m getting a feeling of something’s not quite right here, [I believe in] trusting that even though sometimes society says not to trust that, [or says] ‘oh, it’s no big deal.’”

In a 2015 article, Psychology Today identified three different categories of sexual harassment: unwanted sexual attention, gender harassment, and sexual coercion.

Unwanted sexual attention involves unwelcome or offensive sexual advances toward someone else in the workplace—this may include touching or pressuring for a date.

Gender harassment entails vicious behavior toward workers based on their gender. This can include inappropriate jokes that mean to be offensive or mocking, belittling comments, and, in some cases, violent threats. Psychology Today states that while this is the most common form of sexual harassment in the workplace, it is also the least likely to be viewed as harassment.

Possibly the most extreme category of sexual harassment in the workplace is sexual coercion. This includes the harasser issuing job-related threats or bribes in order to force someone into entering a sexual relationship.

According to 2015 Cosmopolitan survey—which included 2,235 full and part-time female employees—one in three women has experienced one of these forms of sexual harassment at work. Eighty-one percent have experienced verbal harassment, 44 percent have encountered unwanted touching and sexual advances, and 25 percent say they’ve received lewd texts or emails.

Writing, literature, and publishing major Mandy Seiner ‘18 experienced extreme unwanted sexual attention at her job as a Counter Associate at a Bruegger’s Bagels in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She was 16 at the time and was being harassed by Greg, one of the bakers, who was in his 50s or 60s.

“He would make a lot of really gross comments and touch the girls who worked there,” Seiner says. “I remember it got to the point where if I dropped something on the floor, I wouldn't even pick it up because if I bent over he'd jump over and stand right behind me as I stood up. If we passed each other in a hallway he would press up against me on the wall even though the hallway wasn't that narrow. He would generally just be so physically close and so touchy that I wanted to crawl out of my skin.”

In addition, he would make comments telling Seiner to get on her knees and wouldn’t call her by her name, only “good girl,” a phrase she finds disturbing.

This kind of behavior, while upsetting, isn’t all that surprising. Foodservice and hospitality ranked as the field with the highest level of reported sexual harassment in Cosmopolitan’s survey—with a percentage of 42.

Matson explains why this might be: “Especially [in] helping professions, there’s this myth in society that says oh well, it’s part of that job. A kind of a normalization that it’s okay for customers or coworkers to treat people disrespectfully. To say or do things that are not okay. [There is that thought], oh, I’m a customer so I’m paying so I can say or do whatever I want.

Other industries that ranked high for reported harassment included retail, STEM, arts and entertainment, and legal.

And with that being said, 71 percent of women don’t report sexual harassment at work. But of the 29 percent of women who do report it, only 15 percent feel the report was handled fairly.

Seiner did not report the harassment she faced. She says, “I eventually switched store locations, and the harassment was definitely a big factor that caused me to do so. Almost all of my coworkers at the next store were men who were five to seven years older than me. I was afraid of them at first, especially because of what had happened at the first location. But they weren't awful, at least, not in comparison.”

When it comes to reporting harassment, Dr. Matson of VPR thinks people should do what they feel the most comfortable with. That could include actions like reaching out to a place like VPR for support and site accommodations. “Know that you don’t have to keep experiencing that,” she says.

Matson says it’s even possible to report the harassment after leaving the organization. This could include reaching out to state, local or federal authorities such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, different human rights organizations, and even associations for the field of work itself.

It is important to note that unpaid interns are not protected by bodies like the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This is because under the federal Civil Rights Act, they are not technically employees. There are a handful of individual states though that have come up with laws that protect unpaid interns to a degree.

While most of this article and society relates sexual harassment to women, it is important to note that this is something that affects men as well. The 2015 Psychology Today article states that about one-third of all working men reported at least one form of sexual harassment in the previous year. And in 2013, 17.6 percent of sexual harassment charges filed with the EEOC came from men. “One thing I would say is that sometimes it can feel very isolating and lonely when someone is experiencing workplace harassment,” says Matson. “But also know that when one person speaks up, others also feel like they’re having an opportunity to share their voice and might oftentimes chime in, which can create great change.”

Photo by Anja Schwarzer. Illustration by Taylor Roberts.