Why do we stay silent?
During a job interview not too long ago, I was asked one of those typical questions about a challenge I had faced and how I handled it. What came to mind at the time was the sexual harassment I had encountered during my summer as a whitewater rafting guide.
That spring I had saved up for the 10-day intensive guide school, which was grueling and freezing and horrible, but also incredibly exhilarating. After passing the course I was hired by the same company and became a river guide. Out of eleven people who had taken the course, there were three of us hired.
I was the only woman hired, and I passed my test run before the two boys; a fact that made me proud but definitely sparked some resentment. This was a very male-dominated industry. While everyone started out acting friendly around me, throughout the summer my coworkers’ treatment of me got progressively worse.
They would gang up and loudly tell the customers that I was doing the safety presentation every time they didn’t want to, so that I had no choice and had to gear up faster than they did.
One of them regularly told me to go get the boat down off the bus, knowing full well that I couldn’t do it by myself and that I’d have to ask for help. Being a huge, broad-shouldered man, he was one of the very few who could do it himself, and to me it seemed like he just enjoyed the fact that I had to ask other people.
One time we were all gearing up with our life vests and helmets, and the same guy was going around jokingly punching his coworkers to make sure their gear was “tough enough”. He came to me and said if I wanted to be one of them I’d have to take it too, and then before I could respond he punched me in the side so hard that it knocked the wind out of me. I was obviously angry, but shook it off and ignored him, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of getting upset.
I never admitted that it actually left a bruise on my ribs.
One of them told me multiple times that I should come sleep in his tent (eyeing me up and down as he said it), and when I told him I had a boyfriend he said to my face, “Just because there’s a goalie doesn’t mean you can’t score”.
I could go on and on with examples, but you get the picture.
Right at the end of the summer, we were floating down the river in one of the calm stretches before the rapids, and I was talking to my boatload of customers. My coworker came up beside us in his raft and loudly told us an incredibly sexist and inappropriate joke (I don’t recall exactly what it was now), and then paddled away laughing.
One of the customers in my boat (a man) turned to me and said, completely straight-faced, “That’s sexual harassment. You are being sexually harassed”.
I remember being shocked and embarrassed that he said that to me, and brushing it off once again. After that trip I was so ashamed that I had ignored it for so long and allowed them to continue treating me that way. It had taken a random customer pointing it out for me to realize that this really was not okay. Of course I knew that the way my coworkers treated me was terrible, but the entire summer it had just been part of my job, and had become normalized.
I let it be my normal.
Unfortunately that’s not the worst part. During this interview when I was talking about the challenge of dealing with sexual harassment, I lied about how I handled it. Although I know that many people lie during interviews, it’s no excuse. I talked about the manner in which I wish I had handled it, rather than what actually happened. I said that I went to my boss and reported the sexual harassment, so that it was on file and hopefully they would be held accountable and their behavior would change.
In reality, I stayed silent. I worked that last week of summer and never went back.
Why do we stay silent? Fear of confrontation, self-preservation, shame? I truly wish I had gone back and reported it, but at the time I was so relieved to be done with the situation that I didn’t want to be involved anymore.
But therein lies the problem – if I hadn’t stayed silent, then even though I wasn’t going to be there anymore, maybe I could have made the environment better for the women to come after me. By not speaking up I allowed it to continue being the norm, and that means that someone else probably had to go through the same thing that I did.
Too late I learned to speak up. Don’t let it be the norm – break the silence.