Our silence is not golden

Cathy Hirko

My work experiences as a 20-something were not void of inappropriate behavior at the hands of men who knew better.

I remember a company department head who repeatedly commented on my looks and my outfits any chance he got. Think catcalls, office-hallway style. He took it a step further and propositioned me on an overnight business trip. He was married. I declined, repeatedly.

While I was covering school districts, one superintendent would frequently chime in on my choice of work clothes, and whether he liked or approved of what I wore when I covered his district meetings (as if I needed his approval). The icky conversations usually occurred on the phone or in his office, one-on-one, door closed.

Any of this sound familiar?  Young woman, starting out in her career, dodging and enduring bad and creepy behavior at the hands of a man, with a balance of power that always fell in his favor: I needed my job and the perpetrator ultimately could be a factor in whether I kept it.

I mistakenly laughed off most of the comments at the time. This was part of work life, I thought. Adapt or get out. I usually smiled, became adept at changing the conversation and moved on.

At that age, did I think all of the harassment that I endured was wrong? Unfortunately, no. I grew up believing, like most young women do, that my self worth was very much contingent on and connected to my looks.

But when the harassment did rise to a level of alarm such that I mentioned it to a colleague, the subtle judging always started with me:

“You are being too sensitive.”

“Did you lead him on in any way?”

“Well, what were you wearing?”

Really? How does my simple act of putting on a cute skirt for work literally force someone else to harass me?

What’s worse is that others in the office usually knew about the offender’s behavior but chose to remain silent.

Mr. Inappropriate gets a pass, again.

These past couple weeks Hollywood is facing a backlash because of that same complicity – and deservedly so – just as Fox News has endured during the past year, and Bill Cosby, and so on.

And there lies part – if not most – of the problem: Our silent acceptance.

Luckily for me, my examples are fairly benign. Others endure far more severe harassment and even sexual assault. (It’s sad I have to consider myself lucky in this case.)

Age, maturity, wisdom and hindsight clearly show me now that regardless of the level of abuse, it’s just wrong. And we can’t stay silent anymore. Silence allows bad behavior to thrive, and as women leaders, we are in a unique position to effect change.

And it doesn’t take much to help. 

  • We have an obligation to help lift others in the workplace. Show people we care. We will listen.
  • We can encourage our male counterparts to speak up when they, too, witness harassment. Most men aren’t cool with this type of behavior either.
  • We can actively mentor those 20-somethings starting out. Workplace harassment should never be endured, expected or considered the norm.
  • We can use our interpersonal and empathetic skills to establish good, solid relationships with others in our workforce and let them know our doors are open to talk and lend a hand.
  • We can set the tone. You can have a fun, comfortable work environment, but it always needs to remain professional. They can co-exist.
  • We can mentor others. Seek out opportunities to share your work experiences and what you have learned from it. Those employees in their 20s – and even older – will later thank you for it.

I’ve talked to dozens of other women leaders in Central Pennsylvania since I started working for CPBJ. Our success reflects our persistence, as well as our ability to communicate, show empathy and lead. If we show others, day by day, that harassment in the workplace won’t be tolerated, we can help bring about a new workplace normal.

Cathy Hirko
Cathy Hirko is Associate Publisher/Editorial Director for the Central Penn Business Journal and Lehigh Valley Business. Email her at chirko@bridgetowermedia.com.

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