Something You Must Watch – It Still Matters+comment
I am very keen to see the new documentary, Anita: Speaking Truth to Power that tells the story of the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, and young law professor, Anita Hill, who testified about sexual harassment she’d experienced from Thomas while working for him.
I remember all of this playing out in the news when I was in school. I was young enough to be shocked to hear things like penis size and Long Dong Silver on the nightly news, but old enough to know what was going on. And I always believed Anita Hill. But years later, I would have my first real job out of college at a prestigious advertising agency and would have to deal with sexual harassment on my own.
After I graduated from college, I moved back to Sydney, Australia (where I was born) and got my first job at a big ad agency. One of the most senior account directors, Rick, was in his late 50’s, married with children and grandchildren, and was unabashed in his inappropriate comments to the young women that worked there- and unabashed with his hands. Yes, inappropriate touching happened all the time. It seems so odd that anyone could get away with that now, but Rick was one the Managing Director’s friends. They’d worked together for over 20 years, and Rick was the Account Director on a big, steady-income producing client. Basically, no one felt comfortable talking to a man (our boss) about an old friend.
In the kitchen, near the copy machine, standing in someone’s cubicle, Rick made it a point to “graze” by our bodies. He always needed to guide himself through tight areas by grasping hips. He swatted bums with file folders. He commented on women’s clothing. If one woman was bending over another woman’s desk, he’d say something creepy and inappropriate. But no one said anything. I was an account coordinator – pretty much one step above the receptionist. The account director of my team was similarly creepy, but more in a drunken, functional alcoholic way more than a pervy around women way. Oh, advertising.
However, what bothered me the most as a naive 21-year old, was that all my friends in the office knew about Rick. Every account coordinator was a woman between the ages of 21-26. Interesting. We all joked how if he walked into the kitchen (it was a long galley kitchen which meant it was easy to press up next to someone if that was your creepy, old guy move), we would quickly exit. It was unspoken but acknowledged that he was just an older man, stuck in his ways – as if he didn’t even think what he was doing was wrong. I’m always annoyed and exasperated with people’s insistence that anyone past a certain age can’t be called out for bad behavior.
I always hated Rick’s pretty obvious attempts to touch the women – how many times can a grown man graze past your boobs? But I didn’t say anything. Instead I seethed. But I have to say that I remembered the Anita Hill hearings. Sydney hadn’t had these huge sexual harassment discussions play out on the nightly news. I’d been there over a year when I decided to quit so I could travel throughout Australia and Europe. I knew advertising wasn’t my future, but it was a good job that would handsomely pay for my travel dreams. After I’d bought my ticket and knew I only had two months left of work, I finally got the guts to talk to the Managing Director. I skipped going to HR because she was an intolerable woman who revered the older male account directors and treated the younger women as annoying pests. She would have done nothing. Finally mustering the courage to walk into the Managing Director’s office, we had the most awkward discussion ever. Even when you know you’re right, it’s really hard to talk around sexual harassment. The Managing Director was completely uncomfortable with the entire conversation, but he realized he had to do something. Especially when I listed the other women who’d told me their own stories dealing with Rick. I was told they would “talk” to Rick. Nothing really happened to Rick besides having a talking to. I was given a substantial raise. Which I was excited about, as it meant more traveling for me, but I felt uncomfortable that I was earning more than all the other coordinators for nothing more than coming forward. Rick never spoke to me again. He avoided me like the plague. I was transferred to an all female account team (which I was ecstatic about as they were super cool women). But after I made my claims, what shocked me the most was that the female account directors (equal position to Rick) came forward to say he’d done/said something inappropriate to them.
I was furious that as the youngest employee and weakest job position, I was the one to finally say something. But I realize, in not choosing it as my career and in leaving the country, I had all the power. Those women who worked alongside Rick, their futures and reputations were at stake. Sadly, sexual harassment is still prevalent. And while my situation was almost 15 years ago, I know how hard it is to say something. And I know how demoralizing and demeaning it is to go to work and experience such crass, uncomfortable and sexist behavior. We can think these things aren’t happening anymore, but just last year the mayor of San Diego had to step down for repeated and extreme sexual harassment and assaulting women in his office, charges he still denies.
Young women today may not even know the name Anita Hill, but they should. According to the New York Times, “If she has a legacy, experts say, it is in creating a vocabulary for Americans to talk about sexual harassment, where none existed before.” And I (and countless thousands) thank Anita Hill for that.