By Kamrin Baker
Socially, we call it many different things: Sexual harassment, workplace harassment, a hostile work environment, a boss that’s a jerk. Or it lingers in our excuses: “I don’t like my job.” “I’m not feeling well, I won’t be in today.” “I don’t get paid enough for this.” These feelings pervade our very livelihoods. Discomfort, anxiety, annoyance, belittlement—inequality—are at the very core of our global organizations, and if you haven’t felt it, you might know someone who is perpetuating it.
In this four-part series, I will explore how gender intertwines with the workplace, with leadership, and with our very existences. We are no longer talking for talk’s sake, but rather to sustain an ongoing conversation—to make change. University of Nebraska at Omaha Ombuds and communication studies professor Shereen Bingham says it best: “we create our culture based on our communication.”
Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump are at the top of the workplace harassment laundry list, but I find that seeing this issue as a Hollywood or Washington insider-specific topic—instead of the omnipresent threat that it is— is the first point of conversation. Omaha, though a quaint and opportunistic city, is home to misogyny, harassment and discrimination on a systemic and social level. To ignore these things is to play into the hands of privilege without admitting responsibility or making an effort to bridge the gap.
Speaking to women from various sectors of the Omaha workforce, I heard stories of unbelievable harassment: a coworker stalking a woman to her car after her shift, a manager intentionally walking in on a breast-pumping female employee, a military leader calling an officer ‘a bit of a bitch.’ In an outreach of a handful of women, each had a story to tell. In my own job, the female employees have a group chat where we share screenshots of known individuals who send us disconcertingly forward messages on social media. We have developed a trust within our femme community: If I feel threatened, I will do everything I can to make sure you won’t be next.
Of course, it is vital to note that workplace harassment—and sexual harassment in general—are not always specific to gender, but rather, specific to an abuse of power. That being said, in most instances, men are regaled in higher positions of power than women—and other oppressed people— and therefore, are more likely to abuse their status.
In addition, it is important to go into this cause with an understanding of the gray area. Legally and socially, harassment means two different things—and even in those more concrete cases, people are often well-intentioned, and truly punishing someone for harassment is difficult and evasive.
“There is a legal definition, and some people will only call it harassment if it fits that definition,” Bingham says. “At the same time, there is also a more social understanding of it. You might experience street harassment as fitting the bill, but it isn’t necessarily legally harassment. If something is harming you, upsetting you, undermining you, or throwing you off your game—even if you aren’t in physical danger—it might not meet the legal definition, but as a communication professor, I find that speaking up about it is something that can be helpful to keep the conversation going.”
The thing is, though, this conversation has been going. Although the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have gained some serious traction in the last six months, Charlotte Russell—UNO’s Assistant to the Chancellor for Equity, Access and Diversity—says that she thinks the movement to end gender-based harassment and assault really developed its foundation on college campuses. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign, It’s On Us, got its start as simple and succinct pledges to do better as students and bystanders in 2011. Under a new presidency, however, those promises seem to have been broken—or at the very least, forgotten.
In my experience, which I will detail in the next part of this series, we have remained silent and compliant for far too long, buying into damaging power hierarches, conserving outdated ideals of gender performance, and even dismissing violence in our homes, communities and career paths. While it is a painstaking conversational mosaic to take on, I must talk about this issue, because the world it has created has given me no other choice.
Part two of this series will be published on April 24, 2018.