The year was 1990. I was 16 years old and had recently been hired at a family owned restaurant as a hostess. It was my second job, so my experience was limited. In the days before texting and email, employees had to stop by to check the schedule and request time off.
I was standing in my manager’s office, it was summer, and I still remember the shorts I was wearing. I needed to request a day off and I was telling the manager who was at least 10 years older than me, my request. His response is one I will never forget. He said, “If you come over here and put your legs on my desk, you can have all the time off you need.”
I was mortified! I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear. I remember the heat of embarrassment traveling from my head to my toes. I do not have any memory about what I said in return. I imagine I did what most girls and women have been conditioned to do in those situations. I likely laughed and pretended it was no big deal. And I didn’t tell one single person.
I do remember how I felt. I felt humiliated, uncomfortable, ashamed, and insecure. I recall thinking it was a mistake to wear shorts and made a mental note to not do that again, as if it was my outfit that caused him to say that. I avoided him from that point forward and was lucky it was a part-time job for me. Unlike other women, I didn’t have to endure daily interactions like this. I know now, just like pedophiles, serial harassers look for targets by making comments and gaging the reaction they receive. Now that I have a 16-year-old daughter myself, this story makes me feel angry and protective of her.
About a year later, I turned on the television, and there was Anita Hill testifying about her experience working for Clarence Thomas who was a nominee for the Supreme Court. She was describing how he had harassed her at work.
I was transfixed and I found her testimony to be very compelling. She sounded very professional. The announcer explained what Anita Hill was describing was called sexual harassment. I immediately thought about my experience a year earlier, and thought, “That’s what that is! I know exactly what she is talking about!” I did not have a name for my experience prior to watching her testimony.
Anita Hill was a brave woman who spoke her truth despite the fear of retaliation, and ridicule, which I know she received. Her bravery helped name something many people had experienced but had silently endured for fear of losing their job. Despite her testimony, Justice Clarence Thomas was sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice and remains one today.
His confirmation stayed with me too. To me it sent a message about who is more important in our society. Although I believe in redemption, it’s unimaginable, a woman accused of sexual misconduct would ever get the same level of forgiveness.
Today, 26 years after Anita Hill’s testimony, it was announced after years of accusations of sexual harassment, Bill O’Reilly has been fired from FOX News. Considering, the first public scandal involving Bill O’Reilly harassing a female producer happened in 2004 in which there was recorded proof, I find it hard to congratulate the network for doing the right thing. Executives turned a blind eye for years, and Bill O’Reilly’s boss, Roger Ailes was accused of similar conduct 9 months earlier.
It has been reported, the network paid 5 women 15 million dollars to stay silent. It wasn’t as if the Executives were unaware of this issue. It was the public pressure from Wendy Walsh, the brave woman who had not sued or been silenced with money who told her story of losing her job because she refused an advance from Bill O’Reilly, and her Attorney Lisa Bloom, combined with the loss of advertising revenue that helped force the decision. It turns out there was a culture of harassment at Fox News and there were many victims silenced over the years.
I think this culture extends higher up than Fox News. When President Donald Trump was asked about the allegations he stated, “Bill is a nice person. I do not think he did anything wrong. I do not think he should have settled with those women.”
Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump are cut from the same cloth. They both hold the same regard for women. They both have had several women speak out about how they were harassed by them. Both men had ex-wives who described abusive situations. During Bill O’Reilly’s divorce, his daughter testified she had witnessed Bill dragging her Mother down the stairs. Donald Trump’s first ex-wife wrote about an incident where he grabbed her by the hair and raped her because he was mad about the pain of his hair transplant.
I have heard commentary from people when talking about sexual harassment policies. They say things like, “You have to be so politically correct these days” (sound familiar?), or “You can’t have any fun at work anymore!” This story is not about not being able to handle an advance or a joke. This is a social justice issue and being entitled to be free from harassment at work.
Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump have also both denied any wrong doing and have called the women who accused them liars. One thing I know for sure is, if you are unable to acknowledge and take ownership of behavior, that behavior will never change.
Both men suggested this is what happens to men when they are successful, painting themselves as the victims. This is simply not true when there are multiple stories. People who are in the public eye and hold leadership positions are under high scrutiny and with power comes responsibility for your actions.
I do not recall women coming forward with stories of misconduct from Sean Hannity, another Fox News contributor, or Barack Obama for example. Not all men in public positions have this “happen” to them. Having men be held accountable for their harassment is not just a win for women. This is a win for men too. I know so many men who are respectful towards women and we should honor and lift men up who do interact with honor and integrity. Men can also be victims of harassment, and although it is less common, it does happen.
I have learned if you are harassed, you are likely not the only one. Years later, I heard the manager who harassed me when I was 16 was fired for sexual misconduct with another female employee. By staying silent, the harasser is emboldened to keep harassing and there will be other targets. It is important for people to speak up- men and women. We can change the culture of workplaces and pave the way for the women and girls of the future to be free from harassment at work.
I would imagine I am not the only woman who has a story like mine?