What My Experience With Sexual Harassment At Work Taught Me

It was a sunny morning in late summer when I got into the car, driven by the man who was my new boss, my boss at the new dream job in television that I had always wanted, that I had had no previous hope of ever getting, and that now, by some miracle, I had been recruited for by this man. It was not only my first job in television, but also my first job outside of the non-profit world I'd worked in since leaving college. I was 29 years old and green as the blessed grass.

My new boss turned to me. "So you live with your boyfriend, right?" I blushed. "I'd like to meet him sometime." I think I blushed some more. And then my new boss leaned over and reached for my hand, and held it.

I was petrified with fear and embarrassment. I had no idea what to do. I needed and wanted this job. Very, very much. So I did nothing. No protest, no pulling away. I suppose he eventually let go.

Over the next weeks and months, this man (who was married with two young children and among the company's most senior executives) propositioned not only me but several other young women in the cable TV start-up. At least one took him up on it, and advanced rapidly to a better position at work, and no doubt an even better position outside of work.

He never bothered me again. Eventually, I was moved over to report to someone else. When I lost my job a couple of years later in a downturn, and asked my former boss for help, he did nothing.

This isn't a story about sour grapes— I went on to a pretty spectacular career in television, and this job was the lucky break of my life. So does that mean I was injured by being sexually harassed, or that I was given the chance to learn what it takes to survive as a woman in the real world of business? Or both?

There was no such thing as sexual harassment as a public issue in those days. At the time, I didn’t think what my boss did was immoral, aside from the fact that he was married. It never occurred to me to talk to anyone about it or complain.

In fact, it wasn't until over a decade later, during the hearings to confirm Clarence Thomas for Supreme Court Justice, and the Congressional interviews with his subordinate Anita Hill that brought widespread public attention to sexual harassment for the first time, that I realized, suddenly, that I too had been sexually harassed. The whole scene in the car came back to me and I felt myself get hot with that same embarrassment and fear. 

It would be nice to think that my college-age daughter would be less likely to face a similar situation and that, if she did, she'd promptly bring it to HR's attention, where it would be promptly remedied. But can we be so confident? The military is now embroiled in yet more sexual harassment controversies and surely harassment continues unabated in offices, schools, and public institutions across the country, too.

I do know this: The workplace is a place where power speaks, and it speaks absolutely. To eradicate sexual harassment, we'd need to eradicate the drive to control and exert power over others. The law recognizes the potential in such a setting for abuse, and workers can appeal to the law when abuse occurs. This is a good thing. But weak people are always at the mercy of people in the hierarchy who are stronger.

I personally find the expression of this need abhorrent — not only in the workplace but in life. I hope I did something positive to create better workplaces when I got into positions of power myself. I hope I protected people who were vulnerable to harassment for all sorts of reasons (including gender but also disabilities, illness, family situations, and other impairments), because being harassed changed me.

Yes, I was injured. And, yes, I also learned a valuable lesson: That weak people —

like women in the workplace — need to learn to protect themselves and learn how to advance in spite of the many jerks they will encounter in their careers.

So I teach my daughter, and my sons, what I think is the feminist point of view. Namely, to be accommodating but also assertive, to take pride in their work and their innate talents. To not let anyone, ever, push them around or abuse or harass them. To grab hold of their lives and careers as their own, and not as something owned and controlled by others. To help others who are weaker and protect them in every way possible.

Sexual harassment can be mitigated, but it can't be eliminated. This is either a pessimistic or realistic view of the human condition and workplace, depending on your point of view. Women need to simultaneously protect themselves and accommodate themselves, and be prepared to fight, every day, for the more just and more fair society that is the idealistic —and only — response to living in this imperfect world.

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Erica Gruen

Erica Gruen is a ‘venture catalyst,’ advising growing media, entertainment, and education companies. An Emmy Award-winning TV producer and executive and digital pioneer, Erica is known for masterminding one of television’s biggest brands as President/CEO of The Food Network/foodnetwork.com. There she staged a complete business and brand turnaround and introduced several now-famous smash hits including Emeril Live!, The Two Fat Ladies, and The Iron Chef, in addition to launching the leading food site. Erica was digital when digital wasn’t cool Way back in 1994, she started one of Madison Avenue’s first digital advertising agencies, Saatchi & Saatchi Interactive, and was named to New York Magazine’s first “Cyber 60” list. She also created and ran the branded entertainment group at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, the world’s largest ad agency at the time. Erica uses her creative and financial chops to build business for many of the largest entertainment and publishing companies, including the BBC, Rainbow Programming, the Comcast Networks, Conde Nast, Hearst, Reader’s Digest, and others. She is the recipient of the 2012 Distinguished Fellow award from the e-Business Institute at her alma mater, The University of Wisconsin/Madison, and is an Advisor to the Weinert Entrepreneurship Center at the School of Business there. She lives in New York City and is an author and frequent speaker on work, innovation, and building sustainable brands.

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