July 8th my friend Chris posted a piece on Performance I Create that I can’t get out of my head. I immediately shared that post with every friend of mine with daughters, not because daughters are the only ones impacted by this, but because I’m a daughter and I have a daughter. The post made me cringe. I cringed because I’ve been in his nieces shoes, I cringed because I’m a certified HR Professional and that behavior is unacceptable, I cringed because out of all the things my parents prepared me for we didn’t really discuss this one, and as much as I’ve tried to prepare our teenage daughter for the real world I hadn’t talked with her directly about the possibility of her being sexually harassed at work. That’s not to say my parents didn’t protect me. All I had to do was ask my dad one time to stand at the bus stop with me in the mornings when I was in elementary school to scare the boys away and he stayed the whole time every morning the rest of the time I rode the bus. My parents let me take gymnastics when I was in 3rd grade and almost burned the place down when one of the boys in class would come over and blatantly try to look up my shorts when we were doing donkey kicks. They looked out for me, they didn’t put me in harm’s way, they just didn’t think to have this specific conversation with me.
I mulled over the words in the post and his nieces’ story and I thought about my 14-year-old. I’m often given a hard time by my friends because I try to shelter her from a lot and I like to joke with her that she can just live with us forever, but really there are so many things I hope she never has to experience and this is one of those things. She’s going into high school this year so it’s not necessarily time for me to prepare her fully for what could happen in the workforce, but it’s time to prepare her for what could happen in high school. Maybe if she can find her confidence in high school, she can use it in the workplace one day.
As I reread the post and thought about how my husband and I could prepare her for high school I thought about some of my own experiences. When I was 14, I vividly remember a group of guys who would lean up against the brick wall right outside the doors into the school that we all walked through when the morning bell would ring. They would say things to me like “oooh you look like a porn star” … I remember trying to avoid eye contact while also trying not to be rude. I thought to myself “what does that even mean? Am I supposed to look like a porn star?” It was a confusing time… If I wasn’t what they thought I was, what did that mean? If I was what they thought I was, what did that mean? I grew accustom to guys trying to see down my shirt or grab my ass (Did I ever tell you the story about my 27 stitches in my hand from someone grabbing my ass? That reminds me, I should tell the littlest Minyard that story).
I was a freshman on the dance team and one of the senior girls would comment on how I dressed. I basically developed over night and I remember one time she said to me “I wouldn’t wear those jeans anymore; your butt is very noticeable in them.” I had two pairs of jeans, the ones I was wearing and a dark colored pair that were the exact same size and style. I immediately became self-conscious. We weren’t in a position where I could ask my parents to just buy me new clothes for the school year. Then another time she and another senior were talking about my lips. I remember her making a really big deal out of the fact that she thought my natural lip color was actually lipstick and something about the conversation made me uncomfortable, but she was another girl so what was I supposed to say? It wasn’t long after this that my wardrobe became blue jeans, sneakers, and white t-shirts (hoodies when it got cold outside). Maybe if I dressed really basic, I wouldn’t call attention to my body.
Another year in high school, I must’ve been a senior so this was well into the “dress down” approach I had, a bunch of us went to an out of town football game to cheer our school on. After the game we went to McDonalds to eat. While I was ordering food at the counter some guy behind me from the other school was acting like he was “hitting it from behind” and my friends told me after I walked to the table. I kindly went back to the counter where he was now ordering his food and told him that I didn’t appreciate that and he needed to be more respectful of others. We argued. His sister jumped in the argument. Before I knew it there were 30 people at that McDonalds waiting for me outside. Nothing happened (and Lord knows I didn’t back down), but that was the response to me standing up for myself? Almost getting jumped?
Turns out, high school was an excellent predictor of what I could expect in the workforce.
I worked at a restaurant when I turned 16 and older men would tell me I looked like Angelina Jolie. Why? Because I was skinny, blonde, and have big lips not because I really look like her. It was a way to tell me they noticed my features without commenting specifically on my features. These weren’t co-workers, these were customers. Could I tell a customer when they were being inappropriate?
I worked at a wholesale distributor when I was 17 where I was lucky enough to work with one of my grandmas best friends sons so at the very least he didn’t let the guys at work say derogatory things about me in front of him, but I heard some of the comments anyway.
When I moved off to college and worked at another restaurant every guy in the kitchen basically hit on all the female servers. Some were respectful, but most were not. Could I tell them they made me uncomfortable? Or that time one of the grown managers invited my 18 year old self to his apartment under the guise that everyone was coming over for a party. I was smart enough to bring a friend with me, thank goodness, and when I got there to see NO ONE ELSE FROM WORK there I left the front door open while I made small talk and found a reason to leave. Here’s the thing, when that same friend of mine got wasted our first weekend away to college at a fraternity party I knew exactly what to do to keep us both safe, but I had no idea what to do when I had a sleeze ball manager that thought it appropriate to trick me into coming to his home.
As an adult I worked for a company that had maybe 3 men on the payroll at any given time. One time, one of the men was wasted and tried to get me to sleep with him. I shut him down easily and then he freaked thinking we couldn’t work together anymore. I made it a point to let it go so he wouldn’t feel weird around me. So HE. WOULDNT. FEEL. WEIRD. AROUND. ME.!?
At that same job I was constantly accused of closing deals because of how I looked. No one even gave a second thought to the fact that I might actually know the ins and outs of what I was selling. These accusations came from women at work, not the men, much like the critique of my looks in high school.
In my current job I had a male sit across the table from me and tell me he sees “cute girls sell things that the consumer really does not need, but they buy it because a cute girl is the one selling it all the time.” Cute. girls… sigh.
As you can see, my friends post had me rehashing a lot of events. Where did it start? How did I respond? How did I want to respond? How do I want my daughter to respond? These aren’t even the half of it and there is no telling what the other girls in high school were also putting up with, or my other female coworkers. I wouldn’t know because we didn’t talk about it.
What I want her to know is that she’s allowed to tell someone when they make her uncomfortable. If she wants to say no, she can say no and I’ll always back her up. If she wants to tell someone they cannot touch her body, I’ll always back her up. If she feels unsafe, call one of us-no questions! No one has a right to comment on her body, her looks, her clothes and she’s always welcome to use her voice to shut that down. I want her to know where her worth comes from because when someone says you look like someone/something it doesn’t make it true. I want her to know that you don’t have to give in and act a certain way because of what people say about your body.
The thing is, we need to address the behavior and the perception and stop pretending that people willingly put themselves in situations to be abused, criticized, or taken advantage of. This is the kind of parenting that takes a village, a village of honest conversations and accountability for how our children treat others. Until we get there, I’ll be continuing this conversation with my young girl so at the very least she finds the confidence to speak out against unwelcome behavior directed towards her and if she ever needs it, the confidence and bravery to call it out at work.
The reality is that all of those experiences we have shape how we behave in the workplace. Sometimes that means someone who got away with harassing people all through school will do it at work. Sometimes it means your HR person was silenced every time she was harassed so now she doesn’t know how to help you when it happens to you. Sometimes it turns us into loud social justice advocates who can be off putting. Sometimes we turn out just fine. How early are you going to start the conversation to change the workplace?
*There is stuff in this post that I never talk about. There is stuff in this post that doesn’t seem very HR Related, but its my blog and I get to bring my whole self to the blog if I want (check the recently updated about me). This is something that has been weighing on me since I read Chris’ post and it’s worth sharing with my readers who are also parents. If we can’t talk about it with each other, can our kids?