Saturday, October 14, 2017

Weighing in on sexual harassment in the workplace

I came to Norway in October 1989, and began working as a senior research technician in January 1990. I remember many things about that time, but one thing that stands out is the behavior of the research institute leader at that time (now deceased). While he was friendly to me, he was also someone I felt uncomfortable around. I found his jokes to be rather stupid, e.g. wondering if I or my family were in the Mafia because I had ancestors who were born in Italy. The first week I was at work and he met me in the hallway, he said hello and went on his way. An hour or so later, he returned with an oversized lab coat for me to wear, so that my mini-skirt would be ‘covered’, as he put it. I guess he found me too tempting for the men who worked there--a young woman working among them who wore her skirts above the knee together with high-heeled boots. I found his behavior odd, but thought no more about it. As the months went on, I was told that he and his wife were religious people and had served as missionaries in Africa for a period. I am not sure why that mattered, as I found him to be a man whose spiritual qualities were quite rusty, whereas his physical (read—sexual) needs seemed to matter more. He was already in his sixties when I started to work there. I’ve written about him before, but the stories concerning him bear repeating, because he was a man who behaved in a sexually-harassing way. No one would have called it that then, but they would now. If I commented on his behavior to the others I worked together with, they would tell me that’s just the way he was, to ignore him, he was harmless, etc. But still I never felt comfortable around him, and I am not so sure he was as harmless as they wanted me to think. I was together with him in an elevator one day, just us two, and he cornered me and began to ask me if I knew the difference between the Norwegian words fytte and fitte. The former is usually used as part of an expression to denote irritation, e.g. fytte fan (similar to ‘goddamn it’), whereas the latter is the slang word for pussy. Of course I didn’t since I was just starting to learn Norwegian, so he of course had to explain the difference to me, and I know he enjoyed doing so. He enjoyed having that power over me, enjoyed that I felt uncomfortable. I couldn’t wait to get off the elevator. Perhaps he enjoyed testing to me to see how I would react. After all, I came from New York City, sin city in his eyes for all I knew. I’m sure that’s how he felt about it. His wife was a pleasant older woman who was probably sick to death of his flirting with younger women. Because for all his religious leanings, he really was a dirty old man. I have seen him dance with younger women and grab their breasts, and I know that he grabbed the rear end of a female Brazilian scientist who promptly told him where to go. That story was relayed to me along with several others that cemented his reputation as a dirty old man, at least to me. He was also not interested in giving credit to those who actually did the work on research projects; he planned who were to be the authors on a research article before the work for it had even started. His view was that the only people who could be included as co-authors on an eventual article were those with PhDs and MDs. At that time, I had a Master's degree and was considering starting PhD work. One of my colleagues, a male MD, protested that this was unfair, as I did, to people like me who would actually do the work. I am forever grateful that he did that, but it didn't change this leader's mind. I can tell you that my interest in helping this leader was null. The project never got started because there was no one to do the work. He was a sexist pig who hid his proclivities under the cloak of religion.

Through the years there have been other men who have behaved similarly, commenting on ‘the view’ if you happen to bend over, or telling jokes about ‘a bush’. Or drunk male scientists at research conferences who danced with the younger women there, and who were all over them which resulted in their having to be forcibly removed from the dance floor by some good men because they would not let go of the women. I’ve witnessed all of these things.

Why do I bring up these behaviors today? Because these types of behavior do not belong in the workplace. After this past week’s revelations of how Harvey Weinstein treated many of the actresses who were working in the films his company was producing, I see the importance of calling a spade a spade. Weinstein’s behavior borders on/is criminal, especially if he did indeed rape some of the women who have called him out on his behavior. Sexual harassment in the workplace really is a terrible thing. There is already enough harassment and bullying in the workplace (including academic workplaces where the balance of power lies firmly with male mentors and leaders) against women by powerful men, and if you add in the sexual component, it becomes a nightmare for many women to have to go to work each day. When you are young, you don’t always know what to say when someone treats you like this. You may blame yourself first. The smart thing of course is not to do that, but I don’t know too many women who have managed to blame the men first, to fight back or to challenge their harassers. It's very easy for those who have never experienced harassment to say that they wouldn't stand for it, that they would fight back, etc. The harassers have the power and control, and most women do not. If women complain or stand up for themselves, they are labeled as difficult and out-of-control. Consequently, they are not considered for leadership positions and are otherwise frozen out of the old-boys club. And that’s the problem. When I was younger, the old-boys club thought they could get away with treating women as sex objects and making them feel inferior, and not much has changed now that I’m older. Power-hungry men still run the show, and some of the perquisites include being able to have women at their beck and call. And there will always be women who undermine other women in order to curry favor with the old-boys club. These are the women who will tell you to ignore their behavior, or he didn’t mean it, or it’s worse at other workplaces, or he’s really a nice guy, or he's never done that to them. There are some men who say the same things. These are the women and men who wake up years down the road (perhaps when their own daughters become victims of sexual harassment), when it’s too late to do anything about it except to regret that they feigned ignorance or deliberately ignored abuse when they could have spoken up and supported those who needed their help. They have to live with their guilty consciences. Frankly, I don’t care about them or what happens to them.