#TimesUp movement needed in workplace

Jennifer Lee Preyss By Jennifer Lee Preyss

Jan. 12, 2018 at 3:21 p.m.
Updated Jan. 13, 2018 at 6 a.m.

Jennifer Preyss

Jennifer Preyss   Victoria Advocate for The Victoria Advocate

Watching the Golden Globes' red carpet black couture Sunday and listening to Hollywood elites champion the #TimesUp movement, I have spent the last few days wondering how we arrived at this place.

It's a place that's both inspiring and solemn. In a real way, I feel women are on the cusp of something great in history, at least in America.

As if the sea of black dresses opened a memory vault of past conversations, I've been recalling the many times women in my life have confessed past sexual abuses, rapes, gender-related power struggles and sexual harassment.

The latter seems to be the most pervasive in the workplace and the most rationalized.

Too many stories have come out in the media of late; too many once-respected and revered professionals have abruptly disappeared from TV and film - including one of my former longtime favorites, Charlie Rose.

The accusees' social media pages remain eerily silent, their last posts for many of them display pinned public apologies, though I haven't yet read one that takes full responsibility.

The #TimesUp movement has been an odd awakening for me.

I have always recognized that women in this country experience transcendently more freedom and independence than many other international women do.

I've also felt so genuinely thankful in my life that my past never included violent physical harm or sexual abuse. I have seen the emotional destruction it can cause. I have comforted and cried alongside too many dear friends who have battled drugs and alcohol, sexual promiscuity tendencies and thoughts of suicide because they can't emotionally reconcile the abuses of their pasts.

I've never heard of a violent assault in the workplace, but I have consoled friends who have been sexually harassed at work. We've talked through plans of action about how and when they would deal with it and what they would say to human resources, which many never pursued. Most chose to endure it until they found another job. When it happened to me, that's what I did.

When I was in my early 20s and eager to get and keep a professional job, I faced lewd come-ons from younger and older men in the workplace on a regular basis. As an intern many years ago, I experienced encounters of creepy shoulder rubs from an IT director who was constantly finding reasons to update my computer. He often made comments about my legs and neck and one time made a fairly disgusting comment about my pantyhose.

I never said anything. I was too young, too inexperienced, too afraid to rock the boat by reporting a senior staff member.

I also loved my job and worked hard to get it. I was excited to go to work every day, and I enjoyed the people I worked with.

The saddest part of this harassment memory is that I remember thinking there would always be "that one" creepy co-worker at every job and even if I quit or reported him, there would be another one at the next job.

I also remember thinking I would be labeled as the intern in the office who reported sexual harassment against a longtime employee. I didn't want to be that girl. I was not going to be that girl. The stakes were too high for me.

In time, I normalized these weird and uncomfortable encounters and convinced myself it wasn't that harmful since he wasn't physically harming me.

I sought justice not in human resources or through legal action but rather with other interns of my entry-level status who became coffee break friends. We would exchange our stories of the creepy encounters with the IT director and have a laugh at his expense. This is the mind of a 22-year-old at work.

At 35, there is no way I would let him touch me, and there's no way I would stay silent.

But the issue as I see it is not just that men are sexually harassing women in the workplace. The greater issue is that we live in a culture where women, even with all our freedoms and independence, are not freely experiencing workplace equality. It goes beyond a dollar for dollar match on a paycheck. It's that some men will always see women first as conquests before they see them as a co-worker, subordinate or manager.

And an even smaller number of these men will think it's appropriate to use their power in whatever way they choose because the workplace culture allows it. They are protected by a workplace culture of silence and the uneven balance of gender-related power.

Women are not often in positions of leadership in the workplace. It continues to be a rarity. They are statistically underpaid and underpromoted. When they look up at the higher webs of bosses, they typically see white men at the highest levels of leadership across all departments. Perhaps a woman is scattered somewhere in the mix, usually with a fraction of power and half the paycheck.

So I guess what's really caught my attention this week with the #TimesUp movement is that is has forced me to think of my female-ness and how it corresponds to the workplace. It has forced me to remember that I am not as disengaged from the problem as I once thought I was and that I know too many women who have stories that are worse than my own.

It also forced me to remember how real the struggle is and continues to be for educated women to climb the ladder. They're continuously dodging potential harassment situations, declarations both subtle and overt of their lesser-than gender and warding off real expectations from older male managers that they probably won't last as long in business as their male peers because they may want to marry or have children.

No wonder so few of us make it to the top. It's an obstacle course, and for some, it's a war zone.

Maybe #TimesUp and other movements like it that will surely launch soon will inspire women to continue marching on, moving up the ladder, speaking up and holding those around them accountable for their actions. Maybe it will force them to think.

Either way, I have faith equality is coming. I believe we are on the cusp. And one day soon, I hope to look back and see how far we've all come. And I pray my daughters never need a #TimesUp movement.

Jennifer Preyss-Mathlouthi writes about faith for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach her on Twitter @jenniferpreyss, jenniferpreyss.com or jlpreyss@vicad.com.


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