women at work

Why Women Don’t Leave Their Jobs After They’ve Been Sexually Harassed

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Surprising nobody, Trump found his way into the news cycle this week with a defense of alleged serial sexual assaulter Roger Ailes. After calling Ailes a “very, very good person” and discounting the lawsuits and statements of Ailes’s victims, Trump described what he believes to be the best protocol for women who have been sexually harassed at work: Talking about his daughter Ivanka, he said, “I would like to think she would find another career or find another company if that was the case.”

Trump’s son Eric then doubled down, calling Ivanka a “strong, powerful woman” who would not allow herself to be subjected to sexual harassment. While it is never wise to listen to anything that either Trump man says, the sentiment is not unfamiliar to women who work. Anita Hill was nearly 30 years ago, but sexual harassment is still very much a part of workplace culture, no matter the industry. And yet many women stay.

Any number of things could stop a woman from quitting a job where she’s been sexually harassed. She may not have the means to leave her job, she may be taking care of children alone, she may be climbing the ladder and not want her progress stalled, she may be making good money. She may not want to leave her job. There are official protocols in place to bring perpetrators to justice and to make the workplace a safe place for women to exist, but most of the time they don’t work. Just like telling women to dress more conservatively so as to not get raped, telling a woman who was harassed at work to quit is just another way to excuse unacceptable male behavior.

Below, 11 women who have experienced sexual harassment at the workplace describe why they decided to stay in their jobs.

Tabatha, age 28

One night when I was working at a restaurant when I was 24 or 25, the head cook was like, “I’ll walk you home.” And as we’re walking, he takes my bike and uses it to push me up against the wall, and he sticks his tongue down my throat. I was like, “What the fuck?!” And he goes, “You’re so fucking hot. I see the way you walk around at work. I won’t tell my wife.” I get him off me. I get on my bike and I bolt.

None of my managers listened. I went to the owner of the restaurant, which is a successful chain in the city. I say, “Hey, this happened, I’m not really comfortable with it, and I like working here.” His response was “That’s my best guy so I can’t get rid of him. Just ignore him!” I stayed for two more shifts because despite all the shitty stuff happening I didn’t want to be seen as irresponsible or a bad worker, I guess. I had no backup plan. Why would I? I go to work, I do a good job, typically I’m not a lot of drama. I just went and found another job after that. And at that job, the same stuff happened. One guy even said, I guess trying to be funny, “We need more sexual harassment in the workplace.” With emotional abuse, there’s no bruises, and you kind of feel like this is your own fucking fault.

Heather, age 61

I was on this project with ten other people, but only one other woman. My direct supervisor was a man in his 60s or 70s. He would make kind of off-color remarks to me about my looks or the fact that I was a single mom and that I was dating other men and he would talk about my private life. It got to a point where he wanted to schedule meetings with me on my own. He used to talk about his own prowess. “I’m turning 70, look at me!” He would talk about inappropriate things, sometimes sexual. For the most part, everyone kind of glossed over it. I felt like I didn’t like to think it was really even happening. He would make it out to his family that I was perpetrating it.

I needed that job. That was when I got a major salary increase, I was a single mom with two kids, there was no way that I was going to quit. I didn’t have the ability to quit. It would have caused such a stir with everything and I don’t think that people would have really believed me anyway. It never really occurred to me that I could do anything about it. Everybody knew. “Oh my gosh, you’ve just got to deal with this sometimes.”

Telling women to just quit their jobs, that’s what men say. That’s their rationalization of the situation. How do they frigging know anyway? They don’t know what they speak of. Men are never sexually harassed in that way. They don’t know what that’s about. If you need the job, you need the money, you have people relying on you, you need to pay the bills? You’ll put up with all kinds of shit. As wrong as it is, a lot of times you blame yourself: Maybe I shouldn’t wear a skirt, blah blah. It’s bullshit. That’s what you do. You start questioning your own motivation and morals and it’s wrong. Meanwhile, the men have no idea how they affect you. I’m just doing my job! Believe me, when I think about it now, sometimes, rarely, if I were a litigious person, I could have caused some damage. Look at what Anita Hill went through! Women rarely do that. How many times have men been brought to task?

I worked at a multinational company. I wouldn’t have even known where to start. The only reason they would have dealt with it is to get rid of me. You really do feel like you’re alone. I think it’s easier to prove murder. Unless someone had a gun or a knife, we don’t see it as a crime.

Aliyah, age 27

It happened when I was 20 and I was starting up our HR department at the company my dad owned. There was a 55-year-old guy who obviously thought I was interested in him. This wasn’t just a creepy sales guy who was hitting on me. This was a guy who thought we were meant to be together. He asked me if I wanted to start relations with him and said that he could sense a connection when we were in the same room.

It was a total fight-or-flight moment. I got red and stormed out. My dad was out of town at the time, so I talked to the VP and he said to me that this guy should go, but my dad overstepped him and basically said don’t be dramatic. “Calm down.” After that, the man was told not to talk to me. They moved me into a different area of the building. He tried to add me on Facebook. He tried to communicate with me after-hours. He wrote me love letters. He asked to take a photo of me. Yet I still was going to work every day, thinking, Do I stop working for my family business? It was such an issue of like, who is my father as a leader? If it was someone else would he be acting the same way? How is this setting an example? It’s not safe for a woman to work here.

I don’t really know what my options were. I was my dad’s eyes and ears on the company while he traveled. I felt pretty trapped, for sure. I hadn’t finished my undergrad. I didn’t feel like I had many options to go anywhere else. It feels like you’re screaming at the top of your lungs and no one can hear you. Even though they had moved him, he would hear my voice and come linger around. He would prop his leg up on the chair. Finally, I was like, this needs to end, so I got the police involved. My dad was still saying things like “He’s a really good software developer, is it really that big of a deal? Can’t you handle it?” That kind of thing. My dad would say things that would really sting. He would say, “You’re going to have to get used to the fact that you’re a beautiful girl, you’re going to get hit on.”

The day they let this guy go, they made sure I wasn’t anywhere near. They didn’t even fire him for sexual harassment: They laid him off.

Morgan, age 29

I was recently representing a client in a courtroom. It’s customary for judges to refer to attorneys as “counselor” or Ms./Mr. X during any proceeding. Instead, the judge chose to call me “young lady” in front of an open courtroom full of about 100 litigants and their attorneys. While representing another client, opposing counsel (an older man) chose to call me “sweetie” instead of my name and repeatedly asked me how old I was during our negotiation.

What am I supposed to do in that situation? My hands are tied and I’m forced to grin and bear it. I’m there to represent my client and work toward the best possible outcome for him/her. My legal-services agency exclusively serves clients who are low income and have a physical disability — we’re in court because they’re at risk of losing the roof over their head, critical public benefits, or custody of their child. I can’t stand up to a judge or opposing attorney when they make comments like that because my clients are the ones who will have to deal with the consequences. I can’t compromise the outcome by risking that the judge will take out his embarrassment, anger, etc. on my client and punish me for speaking up by punishing my client in his decision.

Niah, age 29

When I was 17, I was a lifeguard, and one of the older (mid-20s) male guards constantly said creepy shit to me: “You’re too hot to be a teenager,” etc. I usually just either pretended that I didn’t hear him or laughed. I didn’t think it was funny at all but I didn’t know what else to do. He was a popular, senior guard. I never considered quitting — it was a great job, and I figured it was worth putting up with one leering asshole. Also, this job was pretty incestuous, with young people hooking up and drinking together, etc., and I didn’t really know what constituted an “out-of-bounds” remark.

But one day he came into the women’s locker room and pushed me up against the lockers, put his hands on my hips, and told me he wanted to have sex with me then and there. I was alone in the locker room because I’d been changing to go for a jog. I tried to act like he’d been kidding, and told him he shouldn’t be in the women’s locker room. Then I straight-up sprinted out of the locker room and then clear out of the building. My immediate supervisors (two women) had been waiting for me in the front of our guardhouse to go for our workout. I started crying while we were running, and told them what happened. When we got back, they told our boss (a 30-something man). I don’t know exactly what happened to him as far as punishment — I think our boss sort of informally suspended him with pay until he was transferred — but he didn’t come back to our beach.

I remember being very surprised that he was punished. I stayed because literally every colleague was supportive of me, including his friends — word got around, and many came up and told me how grossed out they were by his behavior. I probably wouldn’t have said anything if I hadn’t been lucky enough to be in the position to speak candidly with female bosses whom I trusted. I stayed for two more summers.

Bree, age 26

I took a job at a well-known financial-management company. The boss would constantly make underhanded comments about the young women’s sex lives, and he (literally) had a paper box in his office called the “stripper fund.” When one of us made an error (and the error was likely due to his inability to explain things properly), we were supposed to pay into the stripper fund. Occasionally, his stay-at-home wife would come into the office to do some work, and he had her pay into the stripper fund as well.

One evening, we were having a staff meeting, and he told us a story about one of our most important clients that he entertained at a strip club a few weeks back. I decided at that point that this was not a company that I wanted to do business for. I was naïve, and didn’t realize that this attitude is part of working in the finance world. I stayed for a month and then sent in my resignation.

I stayed because I was anxious to start making an income. I had been referred to the job by the friend of a family friend, and so I think I felt a certain obligation to her to stick it out. And this was my first “grown-up job.” I had worked through university in some quite prestigious internships, and had then worked at a bar to make quick money to travel, but I hadn’t had a permanent, full-time role. I wasn’t ready to go to grad school, and I was anxious to be able to succeed and start my career. I didn’t want to take steps backward and end up without a job, or work in retail or hospitality. I thought if I could tolerate him, then I could expedite my career path and learn to be fine with him.

Lauren, age 28

I had a design job at this big web agency. My boss was my creative director. I’m an out queer person, and he knew this immediately going in, and he kind of made my life hell all the time. From day one he was insinuating that I was sleeping with all the other queer women in the office. At the time I was dating a guy and he didn’t know that because I never referred to the gender of my partner. One day it slipped out and I called him my boyfriend. I never do that, but it came out. In front of ten people, he loudly goes, “Aren’t you a lesbian? How do you even have sex?”

Another time, I wore a dress to our holiday party, and he was like, “Is that against the rules for you?” There was a photo of all of us from the party, and I was leaning over and my boobs were hanging out. I told him after the fact that I didn’t feel comfortable with that photo, but after I told him, he said he wanted to use it on the website. Later I caught him trying to Photoshop my dress up over my boobs.

I didn’t leave initially because it was a really good job. It was prestigious in that agency world. I told myself I just wanted to make it to my year mark, I didn’t even make it because I couldn’t deal with this shit. I also didn’t want to stir anything up. I didn’t want to make a big to-do about it. I didn’t want that to be on my name. Even when I said something, nobody did anything.

I was there for ten months. I’d say 85 percent of my decision to leave was because of him. But I did go to HR the day I left and gave them printouts of our text messages that were inappropriate, and summarized all the verbally inappropriate things that he had said over that time. I know he was there about a year after that, they clearly didn’t do anything about it.

Robin, age 46

I was 19 and pregnant, and working at a paint store. My two male managers would blatantly leer at my breasts and make remarks about how good I looked in my T-shirt and that my clothes were getting tighter. It took a while to get the nerve up to complain to my female manager. She was like, “You need to stop complaining, that’s just how guys are.”

I turned 20, had the baby; I was a young mom and I had health insurance through my job. I had a baby to support. There was no way I could have just quit because of the way they talked to me. It just wasn’t an option. I was working full-time and trying to take care of a baby. I didn’t have the time to go look for a job, I couldn’t afford to take time off. There weren’t a lot of options. If it had been easy to leave, I would have.

Unless you somehow document it, like if you’re walking around with a body camera on or something, it’s really hard to prove. It’s so scary to not know who will back you up. Trump’s comments diminish the experiences that women have in these situations. The person who is wronged shouldn’t have to quit. They shouldn’t have to give up their jobs. Most people are not in a position where they’re working by choice, and they’re working for a living to pay their bills. Most people are only a paycheck away from being completely broke.

Nora, 28

I was 25 or 26, working as a back-waiter at a restaurant. A bunch of people we worked with went out after our shifts. My manager came onto me very strongly and I rejected him. After that, he treated me totally differently at work, he was rude and dismissive, and would give me shittier sections whenever he was in charge. He made it more difficult for me to work partly because he felt insecure. He brought our personal stuff into the workplace.

I didn’t say anything about it because I didn’t know how. I didn’t really know how to prove that. It was so cliquey there that I didn’t feel like it was a safe place to talk about that. He was more well-liked than I was and I felt like I couldn’t really talk about it to anyone other than co-workers. HR wouldn’t be able to address it. I didn’t know how to prove it.

I was always stressed out when I had to work with him. I stayed, though, because the money was good and because I was doing art stuff that doesn’t pay well or at all. I had to stick to it. I really needed that money and especially New York restaurants, it’s super-competitive so you know you’re going to make money.

I feel like what the two Trumps said was a discussion of privilege. For someone like Ivanka, maybe, that would be a possibility. She would have enough money to do that. But what about women who worked really hard at a position to move up? Then they have to start over, they have to leave that behind. Having to start completely over, why should I have to do that because you’re creepy and in this power position?

Kim, age 25

I had an internship in New York one summer when I was 19, but it was unpaid and only three days a week, so my parents asked me to get a retail job. I got a job at a shoe store. I really needed the job for money, but I didn’t realize it was mostly men working there and I was clearly the youngest one. We had to go to the back room to get the shoes. Every time I would go there, there was one guy who would continually harass me for my phone number and kept trying to ask me out. He was the security guy, so I couldn’t actually say anything to security because he was the one asking me. He kept asking me for my number. I would never say anything mean back, I would just stay noncommittal.

The other guy was a seller on the floor like me, and he would be extremely sexual in the back room. I would come back and he would find ways to bring up sex and talk about sexual positions that he thought I would enjoy. He clearly just thought he was being funny. I think he might have been married. He was older and in his 30s. This was going on for weeks and weeks, and I remember hating it. I was also bad at the job but I felt that I couldn’t quit because there was no way I could find a better job. There were only a few weeks left in my summer internship and I needed the money.

I don’t remember what pushed me over the edge but I remember being so anxious about coming to work and worried that someone was going to follow me home. I remember calling my mom and not really telling her that I needed to quit but was it okay if she floated the money for the next two weeks? I let it go on for a lot longer than I think I would have now because I didn’t think I was going to find another job. I was always worried that if I said something, they would retaliate and get mad. Looking back on it now, I should have just called my parents and asked them what to do, but I was trying really hard to be an adult.

Laurie, 26

My experience was not black and white. It consisted primarily of unwanted and unprofessional attention directed toward me by a male co-worker. I was 23 or 24 at the time. He would ask me questions seemingly just to have an excuse to talk to me, even work-related questions, but which were totally unnecessary for the work that we were doing. One day he approached me when no one else was around and told me that he had seen my profile on a dating website, in an effort to strike up a conversation. Before he could say anything else I ran out of the room because I was so mortified. I deleted my internet-dating presence. There was another incident where I was working late with one other colleague and this person came over and tried to start an unnecessary conversation. There was almost no one else in the office. I chewed him out, explaining in detail why I did not appreciate his attention, that I was not there working late to socialize with him and that I wanted him to leave me alone, and I continued this explanation until he exited the building.

It’s weird — in that instance maybe you could argue that he didn’t do anything wrong, that he was just trying to be friendly. But the kind of friendliness made me extremely uncomfortable and was irrelevant to my work — we didn’t work on any projects together and there was no need for him to talk to me. I tried to put a stop to any conversation before it could get to a point where it might cross a line, as the fact that he had been searching for me on dating websites suggested it might. This same person had made inappropriate comments about other female co-workers, and generally made everyone uncomfortable. I think there was one other person who had a more serious problem where he wouldn’t leave her alone. I stayed at this job because I had work to do, I was passionate about some of my projects and some of my clients, and I wasn’t going to let anyone get in my way. Although, I eventually did leave, and the lack of structure that had facilitated these bad experiences definitely contributed to that, but mostly I wanted to pursue other things.

Interviews have been condensed and edited. Names have been changed throughout.

Why Women Stay at Jobs After Sexual Harassment