In one of my first jobs right out of college, I worked as a copy editor. Every day, I wrangled em dashes and serial commas, sneaking in a little reading in between projects. My boss didn’t care. “Just look busy,” she told me.
I loved the job.
Except for the man we called “The Starer.”
He was someone higher up in the company. And he often came around to the cubicles to talk to employees and check up on their work. He’d lean on the top of the cubicle, leering downward from above.
“No low-cut shirts. No V-necks,” my friend told me at lunch after my first visit from The Starer.
There was a quiet code in the office. If another woman saw him at your cube, she’d come over and talk to you, inventing work for the both of you to do. If no one saw or everyone was busy, you had to endure the several minutes of conversation, while your skin felt it was going to crawl off your bones.
I still see The Starer from time to time. That’s the nature of towns like ours. Small and intimate, even when it can seem so large. Every time I see him, I wave. I try to be nice even while I desperately hope he doesn’t decide to talk to me.
There have been other stories, too. Things I’ve endured while working in the world as a woman. The uncomfortable shoulder rubs from a male boss. Comments about my clothes and my body that even now, years later, make me feel crumpled and used. And other things, too, that I don’t want to talk about. Not out of a lack of honesty, but because I don’t want the words and actions of other people to define me.
But more than anything, The Starer typifies the world of work that women endure — harassment and at levels so pernicious it can feel like nothing and everything.
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In my work as an editor for a literary magazine, I’ve been reading and editing hundreds of essays about women, sexual harassment, and the #MeToo movement which has now been codified into modern history. But what never ends up shocking me is the way that the burden of harassment always sits on women. “No low-cut shirts. No V-necks.” The endless watching out for ourselves and others. Warnings passed off in whispers. They are everywhere and, while they’ve been helpful, their usefulness is over.
Instead of whispered warnings and dress codes, I want rules codified into place that protect women by outlining acceptable behavior for men in the workplace.
I want sexual harassment reporting policies and investigations in companies to be handled in a more transparent manner that respects the women who report.
I want to see more women in leadership and more men made accountable for their behavior.
But again, the burden falls to women to push through these reforms. As managers and supervisors and women in the workplace, it’s incumbent on us to take our whisper networks and make them rules. To change the culture of the American workplace.
This time we are protecting not just the women we work with now, but the ones we will work with in the future.