Tag Archives: sexual harassment

Hillary Clinton’s Survival of Sexism

This blog was originally published in The Huffington Post. The full article with citations can be found here.

At the end of the last presidential debate, Donald Trump was asked to name something about his opponent that he respects. He answered that Hillary “doesn’t quit. She doesn’t give up…She’s a fighter.” This was a rare moment of truth coming from a candidate who literally lies a majority of the time. To me, Hillary is a hero for the valiant fight she’s shown in this race, but for withstanding nearly 40 years of the sexism, misogyny, and discrimination that befall women who seek power and challenge traditional notions of gender. Our country may finally see a woman president not because we as a people have evolved in our thinking about gender roles or because of progressive policy measures that allow women to combine work with caregiving, but rather because of the sheer tenacity of Hillary Clinton herself.

Hillary’s ability and willingness to remain in spaces that are uncomfortable, even hostile toward women, is admirable, though rare to witness (and I mean this both literally—like when Trump loomed over her at the most recent debate—and symbolically, when talking about the space of politics in general). No women has made it to the space Hillary Clinton occupies today, and there are various reasons for women’s lack of ascendancy to the top—in both politics and in the workplace generally. The effects of child-rearing responsibilities have been well-documented as serious barriers to female advancement to the top ranks in companies and in politics. But there may also be more subtle, yet more insidious reasons for women’s under-representation in top positions that have to do with the everyday sexism we experience in the workplace.

Few of us have endured the level of misogyny Hillary Clinton has, but many of us have experienced the micro-aggressions, the small instances of bias, the tiny pinches, scratches, and sometimes cuts that can eventually lead to the deaths of so many promising careers.

This happens everyday at work—when you get cut off or interrupted in a meeting. When your junior male colleague takes credit for your idea. When you look in the conference room and realize every participant sitting at the table is a white man. When your boss expects you to get cupcakes for your co-worker’s birthday. When you find out the man who held the exact position before you made a higher salary. When a client, colleague, or co-worker makes lewd comments that make your skin crawl but you can’t do a damn thing about it—not because laws don’t exist on the books but because sometimes that’s all they are—words on paper that fail to take into account the enormous, oftentimes impossible risks women take in speaking up about sexual harassment.

When women (who are privileged enough to have the choice) leave their jobs—either to opt out of the workforce altogether or to take another position elsewhere—sexism is rarely cited as the reason for the switch. More commonly, women will leave a job to find a company that’s a “better fit,” and some will start their own businesses so they “don’t have to work for anyone.” Some will attempt to find a job that can better accommodate their lives and responsibilities of caregiving. Oftentimes, these career switches are out of male-dominated fields. And then there are some women who leave the workforce altogether to work full-time inside the home. When these career changes are made, the reasons publicly stated may vary, but I would bet a lot that privately, many women are simply exhausted from enduring those little pricks of sexism and misogyny on a daily basis. It may not be a primary reason for leaving (or even a conscious one), but it may certainly contribute to driving women out of certain fields and careers.

And so, the status quo remains: the glass ceiling remains in tact, and patriarchy stays alive and well (though maybe it has the sniffles as of late). And our country and our economy suffer as well, as companies, industries, and fields lose a huge pool of talent.

I have been heartened to see so many men challenge Donald Trump’s sexism in this campaign, especially his blatant defense of rape culture. But this challenging needs to happen more widely—in every office, laboratory, Assembly floor, and school. Trump’s repeated attempt to excuse his support of sexual assault as “locker room talk” speaks volumes about his—and many men’s—absolute refusal to admit their own sexism. To be clear—he is not an aberration but rather a manifestation of the white male privilege that infects our society and drives women away and out of male-dominated spaces.

One way to really make some men angry is to call out their sexism. I have seen many men go to great lengths to justify their actions, defend each other, and deny responsibility. Just a small example—I recently sat next to a man on a plane who “man-spreaded” his legs right into my seat, essentially taking over half my space. I discreetly captured a picture of the man-spreading which I posted on social media with the hashtag #everydaysexism. I couldn’t believe the vitriol I got in response—men I hadn’t spoken to or even thought about in years came out of the woodwork to tell me (or more accurately, mansplain to me) that the man sitting next to me simply had long legs (actually, he was pretty short) and that what he was doing was not sexism. Others questioned why I didn’t just ask him to move, an ask which is symbolic of a broader problem of placing the burden of stopping sexism on women rather than the people who perpetrate it.

There’s nothing ostensibly damaging inherent to the practice of man-spreading, but it is an example of one of those tiny pricks that have devastating cumulative effects on women. Calling out these instances of sexist behavior is exhausting, because the response is often one of defensive, even hostile posturing. Yet staying silent feels pretty bad too. And often times, when you do speak up, you’re the only one doing so, and that can get lonely.

I can only imagine just how lonely and exhausting being Hillary Clinton is. When she accepted the Democratic nomination back in July, I balled my eyes out when she took the stage. My husband asked me if my tears were tears of joy for the first woman presidential nominee. I told him no, that my tears were for Hillary Clinton herself, tears of solidarity, of relief that she was able to survive the years of tiny and not so tiny cuts to get to where she is today. She truly is extraordinary in her ability to persevere.

This campaign has exposed some of the worst social diseases that linger in our country. Sexism is one of those diseases, and while women have always known it’s existed because we live it everyday, seeing Hillary endure it is like pulling off a bandaid and being forced to actually look at the injury. To me, it feels like a very old wound that women have collectively borne is wide open and exposed, but the question is how we do we heal it properly? Hillary Clinton is our hero of survival, but we cannot rely on lone women to single-handedly dismantle the patriarchy. Healing this wound involves a collective effort from all Americans, as well as progressive policy measures that value women, their work, and the realities of their lives.

Hey Baby, Let Me See A Smile!

Note: I originally published this blog in 2011, as part of my work at the Service Women’s Action Network. While it’s true that seeking redress for sexual harassment is easier in a civilian workplace vs. the military, other barriers exist that prevent women from report harassment in both types of work environments. I describe those barriers in other posts, here and here.

***

Every day, I walk 8 blocks down Fifth Avenue to work and then back again. Now that the weather is getting nicer in New York, I especially look forward to these walks when I can sip on my latte, do some window shopping, and bask in the sun before August rolls around and the hot air suffocates so much that it is unpleasant to be outside for a minute, let alone walk ten to work. However, there are often days that—weather problems aside— this walk turns from a pleasant moment of serenity to a time that ranges from annoying to scary. Sexual harassment is what I’m talking about, and there have been times when I’ve been harassed by five different men in the course of 10 minutes, or these 8 blocks to and from work. The type of harassment and specific remarks or actions vary—sometimes men whisper things like “sexy legs” or “nice ass” as we’re passing each other on the street. Other times the harassment is more threatening. I’ve had men follow me a few blocks before, and once even saw a man masturbating in his car while staring at me and saying things to get me to look over at him. While some of these incidents are obviously more dangerous than others, the collective effect makes me feel degraded, objectified, and many times, straight up scared. Even in my own neighborhood oftentimes in the middle of the day, my feelings range from annoyed at best to extremely fearful at worst. After these incidents occur, I find myself wishing I could disappear, that I could walk up and down Fifth Avenue completely unnoticed. But this thought itself is enraging—shouldn’t I have a fundamental right to walk to and from work without the constant fear of physical or verbal sexual assault?

The title of this post is something that male sexual harassers often say to women—“Hey baby, let me see a smile!” or some related version. Men say this to me, and to many of my colleagues and friends, as we’re going about our business— walking to work, waiting in line at the grocery store, on the subway. I don’t know about you, but I rarely have a smile plastered to my face at all times while I’m just living my daily life. Men seem to expect me to, however, and this expectation undoubtedly is related to their view of women and their gender roles. Women exist for men’s pleasure and use, whether it is functional, aesthetic, or sexual. Related, some men feel entitled to expect and demand women to act a certain way, and think nothing of trying to enforce these roles via sexually explicit suggestions, remarks, or gestures. This dynamic is pervasive, and can just as easily happen on Fifth Avenue as in a work environment.

Fortunately, as a civilian I am protected by equal opportunity policies and anti-sexual harassment laws that permit me to sue my employer for sexual harassment and have access to other forms of redress should this kind of thing happen in the workplace. I can also choose to leave my job, to quit at the drop of the hat. Many women are not afforded this luxury, however, if quitting a job because of sexual harassment means descending into poverty. Yet, despite how imperfect civilian workplace sexual harassment policies may be, they provide a lot more protections and forms of redress than the sexual harassment and equal opportunity policies in the U.S. military. Rape and sexual assault survivors in the military also find themselves in precarious positions, and are often left vulnerable and hopeless. Imagine being raped by your commander (boss/employer) and then being forced to work with him, in close, intimate quarters, every day! While I can easily choose to avoid Fifth Avenue or even duck into a public place for refuge, military women are forced to walk the equivalent of Fifth Avenue every day. And forget privacy protections—even though in recent years the military introduced a “restricted” reporting option that allows sexual assault survivors to receive healthcare and treatment without having to name their assailant, anonymity is unlikely to be preserved in practice. In fact, the DOD recently found that over half of sexual assault survivors who didn’t report the incident chose not to because of fear of retaliation or reprisal.

SWAN has been instrumental in persuading members of Congress to introduce legislation that would fill some of these gaps in military policy and ensure survivors of rape and sexual assault in the military are protected. Hopefully one day soon servicemen and women will have the same options I have to escape and address rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. But the underlying cause of sexual violence—an infectious combination of power, misogyny, and sexism— needs to be eradicated before women in both the civilian and military worlds can walk to work without fearing physical or verbal sexual assault.