Bonnie Low-Kramen asks if this is the year when assistants speak up regarding the dark truths of their workplace in the effort to create a better one?
I’m a #MeToo and I am happy I lived to see this day. To be more accurate, these days. The days the silence broke to the point when there is no putting this genie back in the bottle. There is no going back to staying quiet out of fear. That is a very good thing.
It began in a big way on January 21st with the Women’s March on Washington which turned into five million women, men, and children marching in cities large and small all over the world. Assistants were marching too. The march was about many issues, but sexual harassment was a central one characterized by pink “pussyhats”.
I am happy to see this day when Time Magazine named the Silence Breakers as the Person of the Year 2017. The cover and entire issue is filled with women who have been harassed and they are being taken seriously and with respect.
I am happy to see this day when US lawyer Anita Hill – who famously accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment 26 years ago (and he kept his job anyway) – was named Chair of the newly created Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace.
I am happy to see this day when women all over the world are breaking the silence about sexual harassment, they are being believed and the perpetrators are being held seriously accountable. Explosive yet credible accusations are resulting in high profile and very expensive firings and suspensions.
The assistants of the world echo similar stories of desperately wanting to feel safe to do the job they were hired to do, as opposed to having to contend with bullies and sexual harassers. I hear stories of overt demands for sex to stories of more subtle toxic cocktails of harassment comprised of undermining judgments on our clothing and bodies.
Sexual harassment is about power and taking unfair advantage over those whose livelihoods depend on the more powerful. I hear stories of single moms who are the sole support of their families and responsible for putting food on the table. When these fundamental survival issues are at stake, assistants will themselves to uncomfortable silence and plaster on a fake smile rather than put their children in jeopardy.
Until now. Until these events in 2017, it has felt far too dangerous to speak up.
The sexual harassment I experienced was mild compared to the dozens of horror stories I have heard. One of the most vivid stories is from an assistant to a film producer. The assistant was attending a lunch meeting with her executive and several other male executives. Her executive grabbed her from behind with both hands on her waist and lifted her to bounce her up and down while exclaiming, “See? I told you they were real.”
The trauma from these “can’t make this stuff up” events is painful and long-lasting. One does not “get over it” so fast. Once assistants feel safe to share their stories, what we see is that pretty much everyone has a story to tell. Even if the event happened years ago, it can feel like yesterday. And it can pack the same punch.
Assistants know that none of this is okay and finally the world seems to be agreeing. USA Today’s recent poll indicates that 64% of those surveyed believe that sexual harassment is a “serious problem that needs to be addressed.”
Assistants are in a unique position where they see and hear most everything going on in their company. The time is now to say what they know; to be involved in the creation of policies that make the workplace a safe environment – one where witnesses to harassment become allies. Of course, it is generally agreed that no real and meaningful change will happen unless the leaders at the top are on board.
This watershed moment has come to break the silence and to build a transparent workplace that is fair and holds people accountable for bad behavior. This will most likely become very messy before it becomes cleaner and clearer. That’s okay. Assistants happen to be really great at cleaning up messes and have an extremely high tolerance for it.
I say bring it. I am happy I lived to see this day.