Sexual harassment in the workplace is having a cultural reckoning since the allegations surrounding Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and a litany of prominent men in media, entertainment and politics have surfaced.
Through dogged journalism and women who summoned the courage to make their allegations public, we may be experiencing a watershed moment in the American workplace. The national conversation may be picking up where it left off in 1991 after Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas repeatedly had harassed her.
While there are near daily reports of alleged sexual harassment by prominent men, the experience of millions of ordinary women who have experienced degrading, diminishing or insulting comments and behavior do not make headlines. They work at ordinary jobs, from the lowest rungs to the highest rungs and everything in between, in businesses that range from fast-food service to the Fortune 500.
And often, they simply endure the situation. According to a 2016 report by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, about 75 percent of people who experience harassment at work never report it. The most common responses, the EEOC said, are to avoid the harasser, deny or downplay the situation and try to “ignore, forget or endure the behavior.”
“I’m glad this came out in Hollywood because I think it probably gave a lot of women the strength to speak up,” said Sandra Kuhns, co-founder and president of Kuhns and Heller Custom Window Treatments in Trexlertown.
Kuhns and four other businesswomen in the Greater Lehigh Valley who were interviewed each said they had experienced sexual harassment or a hostile environment at some point in their careers.
“When I worked in the corporate world, I had a boss that sexually harassed me and solicited sexual favors, touched me, all of that stuff,” Kuhns said. “I was very young and I really didn’t know what to do with it.
“I backed away from him as much as I could, only to find out that I was then being transferred out of the department.”
Kuhns was furious she was being demoted because she didn’t comply. She was fortunate because there were other women at the company who saw him sexually harass her and backed her up.
“I spoke up, and the next thing I know, they found me a better job,” Kuhns said.
Of the experience, she said, “I’m not happy that it happened, but it did teach me a lot about speaking up for myself and doing things to help yourself, because you’re really the only one that’s going to help yourself. In the long run, you’ve got to look out for yourself as an employee or employer. I hope that women do that. I would encourage anyone to come forward.”
Sexual harassment is usually about power, said Jacqueline Fetrow, president of Albright College in Reading.
“Usually it’s a man of power to a woman of lesser power. Usually the woman doesn’t feel like there’s any place to go, that they’re putting themselves and their careers at risk,” Fetrow said.
“I would be a #MeToo,” she said, a reference to the Twitter hashtag women are using to tell their stories of sexual harassment or assault.
CHOOSING TO WALK AWAY
An accomplished biochemist who co-founded a biotech software firm, Fetrow has spent much of her recent career as a university administrator.
“So you can choose to give in, walk away and risk your career by walking or try to talk to somebody and risk not being believed and risk your career,” she said.
“I chose to walk away from the job,” she said.
Fetrow said that experience and as a female scientist in a male-dominated field are some of the reasons she has a passion for teaching a course called, “Well-behaved Women Rarely Make Scientific History.”
When she was chief scientific officer at Geneformatics in San Diego, Fetrow recalled how an industry publication diminished her accomplishments compared to the chief scientific officers in the region, who were all men.
“What they talked about for me was that I tended to hire other women in my senior leadership team. Not that I had patents, not that I had publications, not that it was my technology that founded Geneformatics,” she said.
“That’s gender in science, at least in that day and age, and still is to a large extent.”
As journalist Rebecca Traister wrote, the flood of sexual harassment allegations is not a story simply about individual misconduct, “but of systemic inequity, a story of nuts-and-bolts infrastructure of injustice that has permitted generations – centuries – of this behavior, and that has worked again and again to beat back any resistance to it.”
WOMEN NOT WELCOME
Barbara Green, president and CEO of Blue Mountain Resort in Lower Towamensing Township, said she was judged differently than the men at Ernst & Young, where she was the second woman to work as an accountant in the Philadelphia office about 40 years ago.
“There was definitely a sense in the public accounting world they really didn’t want women working there,” Green said.
When Green got her second-year review, her boss told her despite being a great auditor, she should stop joining the male accountants for drinks after work at the end of the week “or you’re not going to have a job here.”
Green was flabbergasted.
“Are you kidding me?” she said. “This is Friday night at 6 p.m.; you’re 24 years old.”
MEANS TO AN END
Green said she had a friend who was in the first group of women to work at Price Waterhouse who was made to get up on a table with the other women at orientation while the men hooted and hollered.
“I stayed another two years after that to gain the management and supervising experience I wanted. But after that review, I said I don’t think this is the place for me.”
Green was able to find a job at Rouse and Associates, a prominent development firm in Philadelphia. She acknowledged women who leave a job because of sexual harassment may have to take a cut in pay or move.
COURAGE TO SPEAK OUT
Elizabeth Kiester, assistant professor of sociology at Albright College, said sexual harassment in the workplace has class ramifications.
Kiester noted the women who went on record in The New York Times and New Yorker articles that broke the alleged Weinstein abuses mustered the courage to speak out against a powerful man, but as white, high-powered celebrities, have the economic and professional security to withstand the risk to their livelihoods and families.
“If you’re talking about someone who is a low-wage service worker or a single mom who absolutely needs that paycheck, that paycheck is life or death to her family,” Kiester said. “Of course she’s going to stay quiet.”
In an acknowledgment of the women who are unable to come forward, Time magazine’s cover photo for Person of the Year, awarded to the “Silence Breakers,” shows a partially obscured woman among the women who were able to go public.
Time editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal said the woman is a hospital worker in the middle of the country who shared her story but “doesn’t feel like she can come forward without threatening her livelihood.”
‘ONE OF THE GUYS’
Pamela Shupp, president and CEO of the Greater Reading Economic Partnership, said she was subject to a lot of harassment early in her career.
“I probably did what I would never expect anyone who would work with me now to do, which was laugh it off and keep on going,” she said. “There was not as much of awareness. There was like, ‘Yes, you’re going to participate as one of the guys, and if things are inappropriately said to you, you take it in stride and move on.’ I was absolutely afraid that if I expressed or voiced a concern that it would impact my ability to move up.
“If anyone who I work with now would experience that, I would encourage them to speak up. It’s a different world now. And there should be zero tolerance.”
MATTER OF SURVIVAL
Gretchen Mohen, owner of Lehigh Valley Plastics in Bethlehem Township and S&W Metals in Colebrookdale Township, said when she used to work on Wall Street she also had to tolerate the sexual harassment and sexism in order to survive.
“At that time, we would have done anything to look like a man so you didn’t have to prove that you were better … that you were equal to the people you were equal to, because you have to be better in order to be considered seriously.
“There was one woman who was one of the principals who was very female and mocked for being soft and being emotional and sensitive. She was not a crybaby, just a woman, but it was an environment where you were very aware of being female, and that was not an asset.”
TURNING IT INTO A POSITIVE
Mohen recalled the time she had just returned home from the hospital after having delivered her first child, when the managing director of her department called.
“We have a big meeting coming up, it’s tomorrow. We need all this information,” Mohen said she was told.
Mohen explained she had just delivered a baby, but he wanted her to work anyway.
“But I turned that into an advantage. So after a couple of weeks when my maternity leave was over. I said, ‘Look, you guys made me work during my maternity leave, so I’m going to work from home part-time.’ And I spent three months working two days a week from my home.
“I was the first woman in my department who did that. So you can sometimes turn it, but the second time I got pregnant the managing director called me into his department and said, ‘I heard you got knocked up again. When is this going to stop?’ ”
Green said it’s been a revelation dealing with sexual harassment from a management point of view after having lived it as an employee 40 years ago.
“It’s like, ‘No, you’re not making this up,’ ”Green said.
“‘I’m glad you came in, we’re going to get counseling for the other person. If it doesn’t turn around, we’re going to take some actions.’ ”