women at work

14 Women on Sexual Harassment Since Anita Hill

Jane Fonda in <em>9 to 5</em>
Jane Fonda in 9 to 5 Photo: 20th Century Fox

Before 1991, most people had never even heard the term sexual harassment. That year, Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about embarrassing, sexually charged conversations she alleged her former boss, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, had engaged her in while she was working for him years before at — of all places — the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Hill’s recollection of incidents in which Thomas, her superior, had professed his interest in bestiality porn and Long Dong Silver, was a sobering wake-up call to members of the generation that had both endured the fanny-slapping Mad Men era and given rise to the women’s-rights movement. At the time, many were unconvinced that Hill was telling truth — or believed that even if Thomas had said such things, they were really that bad — including the Senate Judiciary Committee, which gave Thomas a seat on the Court. But Hill’s testimony stirred enough cultural recognition that a year later, the government passed a law making sexual harassment — now defined by none other than the EEOC as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature,” as well as “merely offensive remarks about a person’s sex in general,” over a period of time — a federal offense.

“This moment was so important, because it created a language around women being able to protect themselves,” Kerry Washington, the producer and star of Confirmation, a film about the Thomas hearing premiering on HBO this Saturday, told Elle.

Problem solved. But not really: As the recent glut of high-profile cases (at a number of major universities, in the military, and in every industry from music to fashion to farming to tech) shows, sexual harassment in the workplace is still “a significant problem,” says Fatima Goss Graves of the Women’s Law Center, who served on an EEOC committee last year that estimated that one in four women experience it. That number is probably low, because the majority of cases go unreported — “for a lot of reasons,” says Graves. “Retaliation is very real. Some workplaces send a signal that there won’t be positive change, which is another hurdle. And the people who actually do come forward, they face a lot.” Which is why, 25 years after Anita Hill took the stand, almost all the women who the Cut approached about sharing their experiences would only participate if we didn’t use their full names. Still, it feels important to share them. “Anita Hill coming forward and telling her story opened up an opportunity to have a broader conversation around the nature of harassment,” says Graves. “And right now, I think that a renewed conversation is necessary.”

Kate, 46
I was named the first female partner at one of the most prestigious hedge funds a few years ago. During my tenure in finance, I was surrounded by men, and got very used to their locker-room talk. It’s amazing how you become immune. I actually consider myself lucky because I never had an aggressive male boss or colleague, where there was consistent harassment by one person. But even with the bar so low, there are always things that stand out. Like at the conferences — which are attended by mostly men — I have had men hand me keys to their hotel room, follow me up to my room, etc., without what I considered any encouragement from me. And recently, at the beginning of one of the partners meetings, when everyone was getting settled, one of the men across the table asked me if I had read 50 Shades of Grey. Everyone laughed. I said no and tried to change the subject, but the guy wouldn’t let up. He told me how racy he heard it was and that it was a really good read, and that I should think about reading it. Not one of the other 10 partners tried to stop the conversation or change the subject.

Dani, 38
I’m a social worker in a hospital, and the majority of my work is in the emergency room, where there was an administrator higher-up who was always saying things to me like, “Hey, beautiful,” or “Hey, gorgeous,” or “You must have so many men running after you,” and he always wanted to hug or touch me, which I told him politely made me uncomfortable. I’m not a hugger, and it’s not really the culture in the ER. My boss, whom he was friendly with, just thought it was funny. She would tease that he had a crush on me, which just made me feel even more weird and uncomfortable. One day, I needed to get a patient an appointment and walked up to the the clerk, and they were talking about a porn video going around the internet. I was waiting until there was a pause to ask my work question when this man said, “That’s not for me, I’d only watch the kind of porn Dani was in.”

After that, I went to my boss to report him. She asked whether or not this was really worth a formal report, and did I really wanted to go through all the steps? She said it would call attention to me and that ongoing interaction with him would be uncomfortable. I decided not to move forward, because it felt like although she believed me, nothing would change. When I didn’t report, she promised to have a talk with him. Shortly after, he was transferred to a different unit, which was a relief. His current unit is one that I don’t go to as often as the ER. I do see him in the hallways, though I usually pretend not to see him or fake being in a rush.

Meagan, 30
I work in advertising, and at my previous company there was a guy whose comments about my clothing, how “hot” I was, and how he was going to make me his girlfriend “whether I liked it or not” made me so uncomfortable that I complained to HR. Then a month after I complained, he was promoted to be my boss. At one meeting, he told the office that he was going to print out a picture of my headshot “to use for later,” insinuating what he would do with said picture. When I protested, he said I was “asking for it” by having a picture at all.

Meredith, 30
I knew from the way my first boss, a literary agent, said “Balzac” in my interview that he was gross, but it was 2008, I was 23, and I wanted my start in the industry. I started keeping a log of his comments, thinking it was kind of funny, but over time I realized putting up with his demands for “a real hug, not a grandma hug,” his lewd queries about my roommates (“Do they both have daisy chains and tons of group sex and are they wildly promiscuous?”), and his dating advice (“His friends won’t care that you’re wearing glasses, they’ll just say, ‘What’s the bitch like in bed?’”) didn’t make me cool or tough, it made me depressed.

Halle, 36
Six years ago, I was one of about eight women working in a small investment bank. I was sitting at my desk when the head of institutional equity sales called me into one of the two partner’s offices. There was a girl sitting there, she was tall and very beautiful, dressed professionally. The head of sales introduced me and said they were speaking about a position, and he thought I should come up to talk to her. I hadn’t been aware we were hiring, nor that I would be conducting an interview, but we chatted for a bit and she kept referencing her duties at her previous job. When I asked what her previous job was, she answered that she was a former playmate at the Playboy mansion. I excused myself and, back at my desk, started getting instant messages from the sales guys asking about her. It turned out the whole thing was a setup, the entire floor knew she was coming and had been passing around naked photos of her. They’d asked me to come into the interview to make it seem legit. I was so humiliated. We had a team lunch that day and I was so upset I cried. She actually thought she was being interviewed for a job. But when I said that, the head of sales just shrugged and told me, “That girl knows exactly what she’s doing.”

Tracy, 29
I was working at a corporate job, and it was the company Christmas party. Beers in hand, I was telling a few of my co-workers about a bad date I had gone on the night before: The date had talked about how he’d gone out with a girl whose vagina smelled bad. Right at this point, my (male) boss’s boss’s boss — I can’t say his title, he’s highly Googlable and absurdly high up in the food chain (and known for being sort of a creep) — wanders over and says, “You should have put your fingers in your pussy under the table, let him smell it, and said, ‘Is this okay?’” Everyone fell awkwardly silent. Later on, he didn’t apologize or acknowledge anything, but impulsively gave me a nice bottle of Champagne that my boss’s boss had just given him, with the Christmas card from her still attached.  

Abby, 29
At 21, I was the youngest woman in the office of a financial firm, and only one of three women on the whole floor. One of the partners a kind of old-school cartoon-character finance guy, called me “Doll” every day. In a weird way, being the office darling felt like my only social capital — or at least it felt that way at the time. People were interested in what I was doing on the weekends: They wanted to know whom I was dating, how much I was drinking (I don’t drink, which was disappointing to many). One morning, I wore my glasses instead of my contacts and someone made a “you must have had a fun night” joke, implying I had done a walk of shame. When I wore heels the traders would tease, “Someone’s got a hot date tonight!” or “Have you gotten rid of that boyfriend yet?” A male co-worker close to my age friended me on Facebook and then came to my desk asking about the “hot lesbian pics” he saw on my profile. (They were snaps my friend took while I napped, clothed, in bed next to her after a long day at the beach.) I refused all other friend requests from co-workers until after I quit. Male co-workers would comment on my body under the guise of being interested in my fitness regimen. “Are you working out? Are you eating differently? You look great! I mean … your body looks good.” Nearly every day, someone would comment on my lunch. I am naturally curvaceous, and people always seemed to think I was on a diet. A salad would often elicit something like, “You’re being good today!” I once ate an eggplant-parm sandwich, and a trader shook his head as he walked by my desk, “You’re going to regret that.”

I never spoke to HR because I was afraid it would spiral out of control and I would lose my job, or get someone fired — or, worse, I would just get them in trouble and we would have to continue to work together knowing that I had ruined everything. There was a distinct sense of not wanting to be a whistle-blower, or ruin everyone’s fun. Thinking about it now, I can’t believe the comments about my body and my personal life. Why didn’t they have more self-awareness? I should say that I also had male co-workers and bosses who were respectful, kind, and appropriately funny. But I wonder if I feel compelled to say this so I don’t seem shrill, or like an asshole.

Kelly, 32
At my first law firm in New York, there was this guy who basically had a reputation as that Gross Drunk Guy. For law firms, the big boozy parties aren’t around the holidays, they’re in the summer, when you have all the summer associate events. Law firms are actually pretty disgusting places. I was like 26. He must have been late-20s or 30s. He was a little handsy, but he was like that with a lot of women. But then in the office, he started emailing me constantly — like, first thing in the morning, emails from him. At the time I thought, Maybe he’s just “showing interest.” But it was making me uncomfortable. Then one night after we were all out drinking, he pushed me into a cab and then got in with me. That was when I was an associate. A year later I joined the firm, and that’s when he started asking me out and giving me gifts. He asked me to a concert, and he gave me some box set of DVDs. I always said no. He would call me in the middle of the night. I found out, when I talked to my colleagues about it, that he did this to other women too. It was like his thing. And people at work knew about it, but he had been there for years, and he knew everyone really well, and he was just the Gross Drunk Guy. So I remember at the time I didn’t report it up because I didn’t want to cause a big thing. I didn’t want this guy to get fired. Why was I worried about that? I don’t even know.

The tipping point came after my mother passed away, when I took like a month off, and I finally came back to work. One day after work I was standing outside smoking — because I started smoking after my mom died — and he came out. He was like, ‘Hey, how are you? Do you want to get a drink?” I was like, “Sure,” because everyone was very concerned after my mom died, and had been asking me if I wanted to get a drink, lunch, etc. So we went to get a drink and he starts telling me about people who have met at the firm and dated, and why won’t you go out with me?, and at this point he attacked me. Hands everywhere. He tried to kiss me. He ended up licking the side of my face. After that, I reported him. Everyone was was super supportive, because they all knew he had this reputation. But the firm never did anything. He was like, given a warning. After that, there was supposedly a Chinese Wall between us where we never had to do projects together. But then, four months later, we were staffed together on a project. I had to work with him, and he was giving me death looks. He looked at me like he wanted to kill me. I left eventually. I was irritated and grossed out. The one thing I’m happy for is I never thought there was something wrong with me. I have other friends that feel bad about themselves when this stuff happens. I wish no one ever felt that. This kind of thing happens to every woman, and it’s not your fault.

Ashley, 34
I was a sophomore in high school in suburban Atlanta, and a part-time waitress at an IHOP, where I worked after school and during the weekend brunch rush. It was during those Saturday and Sunday shifts that I met Kevin. He was a waiter, too, but much older. 25? 30? When you’re 15, everyone seems ancient. All of the waiters had to wear the same uniforms: black close-toed shoes, black fitted pants, a white collared shirt, a blue pin-striped apron, and a name tag. Nothing special, and certainly nothing sexy. Kevin thought otherwise. “Nice pants” became “You look good” became “Why don’t we hang out sometime?” became “Why are you so hot?” became “Why are you such a cock tease?” became “Girl, just being around you makes me hard.” I had barely kissed a boy, and I had zero interest in this guy. I thought briefly of reporting him to our boss, but I needed the job and figured she wouldn’t believe me anyway. Kevin had been working there for years; I was the new one. Besides, I reasoned, this is just how guys are.

About six months into the job and maybe two hours into our usual Saturday rush, Kevin came up behind me at the pass and rubbed a hardened dick against the back of my black pants. With his breath hot against my neck, he whispered: “I’m going to fuck you in the ass.” Those were his actual words. I will never forget them because the prospect of anal sex — that it was even a thing people did, or could do — had never crossed my 15-year-old mind. My cheeks burned with humiliation. I ducked into the bathroom and bawled until my boss burst in and screamed at me to get back on the floor. I told her I didn’t feel well, she told me “too bad.” I wiped the mascara off my cheeks and bumbled through the rest of my shift, head down and intentionally avoiding the pass anytime I saw Kevin near it. At the end of the shift, you’re supposed to count your tips and wait to hear what you earned in credit-card gratuities. I didn’t bother. I waited for the boss to harass one of the short-order cooks about this or that, and made a run for it. I called in sick the next day and never showed up for another shift thereafter. A waiter friend from my high school told me later that the boss was furious, that she said it was “typical high-school-girl flakiness.” I never did beg to differ.

Joanie, 36
I was 24 and new to New York, but I was doing well: I had a serious boyfriend, and a job at a real-estate office in the garment district. It was exciting, right up until the night I was working late in the office and my boss told me I should dump my boyfriend and he wanted to see me naked, had dreams about me, etc. I didn’t say anything to him, I was too shocked and stunned. I just laughed it off. I told his boss, who offered a transfer, but I’d still have to see him, so I just left. I’m no longer in real estate.

Lisa, 53
It was a work event. We – editors and reporters at a major news outfit — were at a bar somewhere, to celebrate something: a retirement or a departure or to hear a colleague’s band. What I do remember is this: A lot of us were gathered after deadline on a weeknight, wrung out and adrenalized, and we 
were drinking a bunch of beer. The bar had two tiers, or levels, and I was standing by myself on the upper tier, leaning on a railing, watching the scene below me, when a man, a senior colleague, came up beside me. I was flattered. I didn’t know him well, but he was the kind of eminence I instinctively liked: talented, iconoclastic, disdainful of the strivers that surrounded us all. This editor was a mumbler even when sober and now he was clearly very drunk. To make out what he said, I had to lean toward him. We exchanged pleasantries. And then he said, just as clearly as could be: “You have a stupendous ass.” It was like the time someone whipped out his dick and showed it to me on the subway – it was so shocking, and it happened so fast that I could hardly believe it happened before it was over.

To my everlasting shame, I spun it as “funny” at the time. The way I saw it, or the way I thought I saw it, I was the one with the power: He was older, pathetic, and so clearly not a threat to me – he could be any old fart in any bar. I was experienced enough at handling clueless come-ons that I didn’t make any important distinction, really, between this one and any other – just another creepy loser in my day. I turned the story into an anecdote, hilarious, in which he was the victim – a brilliant editor, perhaps, but too drunk in this case to edit his own behavior. Maybe I was, in some way, protecting myself by spreading the story around so prolifically. The more people I told, the less I could seem to have been preyed upon. But I did tell my boss. I was in my mid-30s at the time, and she was ten years older, raised in a different era of feminism, when female power was not so closely intertwined with and confused with sexual power, and when I told her the story in my by-now-rehearsed, mocking-him way, she did not smile. Not even a little. She looked at me straight in the face and suggested that I report the incident to HR. It was my choice, she said. She wouldn’t raise the flag if I didn’t want her to, but she thought I should. I said I would think about it. The truth was, I had nothing to think about. I was ascending at work. I was being rewarded for what I did, both monetarily and in terms of status and attention. I was succeeding in a male organization and no part of me wanted to be that girl, the one who complained, who was a buzzkill, who pointed fingers, who wasn’t fully on the team. If I’m totally honest, I also might say that I was aware of the ways in which my ass had helped me, professionally speaking, and I figured that a little harmless harassment was the price I paid. What I told my boss was that I didn’t want to report him, that this incident represented no threat to me,  and I didn’t want to make life hard for him. She acceded to my request, but not before she pointed out that this man did hold power. He could be assigned to edit any one of my stories at any time, that he was an important person in a very important part of the paper, and that he could make life hard for me. My reputation might someday rest in his hands. I told her I could handle it. And he never did edit a story of mine, and I always kept a distance from him at work parties. But the incident haunts me now – because in my youth I imagined, wrongly, that I was invincible, because I turned down the sage advice of a good friend and an offer of institutional help and support, because I had internalized the idea – not at this job but long, long before, that being a piece of ass was an element (not the only element, but an element nonetheless) of my identity at work, and it never, ever occurred to me to question or challenge that. It is only now, when I have a young daughter who has to make her way in the world and my ass is not quite as stupendous as it once was, that I allow myself to feel so fiercely protective and outraged on behalf of my younger self. I should have reported the guy.

Cathy, 34
The medical profession is notorious for being sexist, and for good reason. In our practice, I’ve overheard conversations about the weekend trip to the strip club, the plastic surgeon who’s going to “pop in some double-Ds”, the description of a technologist as “the one with the blonde hair and huge boobs,” patients with STIs “being bad girls.” Lots of grossness, and people don’t censor themselves because no one calls them on it — everyone needs doctors. One day I was working with my department chairman, both of us learning how to use our hospital’s new medical-record system, and every time he couldn’t figure out exactly what to do, he said to me, “It makes no sense because a woman invented it.” I told him how sexist it was, but he kept saying it.

Sofia, 42
My boss was the kind of man who needs to seduce every woman in front of him, but in the beginning, it was fine. He was married, he had three children. Five years later, I was married and pregnant. Around that time, he sent me a letter in which he said I was the love of his life, that he couldn’t stop thinking about me. I was really shocked, and ashamed. So I tore the letter, I threw it in a bin. I told him I was in love with my husband, and I was shocked that he would say that to me while I was pregnant. He said the feelings were so strong it was hard for him not to tell. After that, he started offering me presents: bracelets, music devices, brand-name shoes. This went on for years, and it was very awkward, because he was my boss, and I was relying on him for my salary. When we met with clients, he used it as an occasion to touch me. That was really disgusting. Then, a couple of years ago, my own marriage started to fall apart. I was weak and I had no confidence in myself. Suddenly I said, “Okay, my boss has been telling me for ten years that I am the woman of his life.” So I slept with him. After a couple of months, he just abandoned me when his wife discovered the affair. At work, he started not introducing me to the new management, and even started to reduce my bonuses and commission. I spoke with a lawyer, he said, yes, we could take him to court. He could lose everything. “But you, Sofia, could also lose your job, because you had an affair with him.” So I quit my job, which I loved. At my farewell party, my boss got really drunk, and he ended up telling a female colleague everything. Then he tried to kiss her.

Sarah, 38
A director that I worked with on commercials a few times started messaging me, always late at night, trying to get me to talk dirty or sext with him. This went on for a while. I didn’t want him to not hire me again, so I would sort of playfully try to brush him off, but it was really annoying. It went on for about a year, which is a long time of trying to toe this creepy line, and I was auditioning for him fairly frequently. He finally stopped, and I really thought he wasn’t hiring me, but he did finally use me. I know he did the same thing to another actress who is a friend of mine. Who knows who else he does this with and who it works on? You know what’s really crazy? I started to write this, and then got frightened thinking “what if he reads this and recognized it as being him?” That’s so fucked up. I really surprised myself, I didn’t think I was so easily silenced.