My daughter works as an engineer at a large, well known company. She told me a story about her coworker who, when she was pregnant, was told by a male co-worker, “I wish that was my baby inside you.” (Ick, I know.) She also said there’s more where that came from. And I’m listening, thinking this is the world into which I brought new life a couple decades ago.
As a mom I want to jump in and protect my kids from danger and general douchebaggery, and I’ll admit my first response was to save her, or to kick someone’s ass, or I dunno… something. Then the wiser side of me kicked in as I realized she’s an adult and if she can’t fight her own fights, I didn’t do a very good job in the first place. So I asked her more about her thoughts.
In a nutshell, she told me this type of behavior happens frequently and although this example is a bit more egregious than most, it’s indicative of the cultural norms that she and other women at her workplace are exposed to on a regular basis. Surely with the #metoo uprising her friend should feel free to report these things. Surely my own daughter could bring it up to someone in a leadership position, or at least to HR?
But that’s exactly the problem. She said her friend is the only one who was pregnant in the group and therefore cannot anonymously do anything without exposing herself, nor can my daughter report it without putting her friend at risk. Neither of them trust their management, which is blind enough to their issues, and neither of them have had significant experience with HR beyond the annual benefits enrollment jubilee. The culture isn’t conducive to change, and there’s nobody in a leadership position proactively making it clear that lewd behavior is unacceptable. Maybe everyone takes those computerized harassment training quizzes once a year, maybe not, but those don’t move anyone’s needle. They can’t possibly affect lasting behavioral change, and there can be no enforcement when few guidelines exist in the first place.
I had coffee with a good friend the other day and told her this story, replete with my daughter’s and friend’s inaction. She was duly frustrated and horrified and then, as she shook her head in resignation, a light came on. She was having dinner that evening with her friend, a well connected director at the company my daughter works for. She said she’d bring it up with him anonymously. Maybe he had a suggestion?
When told of the situation, he was of course troubled by the story. However, he said that HR is short-staffed and can only react to fires, especially when it comes to satellite locations down the road from the mothership. He then suggested my daughter use an anonymous tip line available to employees.
And then we go back to the cycle of Actually, No I Won’t Do That.
My coffee friend, who’s more like a sister to me, was part of a harassment suit many years ago and was awarded compensation for the horrible treatment she received, which ultimately did cost her her job. She gets it. She said regardless of what the two engineers decide to do, they need to document everything in case one day the lid blows off the volcano. They need to be ready.
Are the women at fault for not reporting the issue today? Although I was initially frustrated at their inaction, no, I can’t go with that. Women engineers in particular are the minority as agents in cultural norm changes, and engineering can be a brutal boys club in spite of the hype around girls and STEM/STEAM programs. In this case they also have little to no proactive support from HR, and therefore have little to no reassurance that they can come forward with their stories. Parallels are a bitch.
I find fault instead with HR and division leadership for not at least capitalizing on the #metoo movement to make a statement about acceptable behavior, training people into it, and then enforcing it. I find fault with them for not doing the right thing, especially because they’re supposed to do the right thing for the company, and this is the right thing for the company. They know better! They’re the ones trained to moderate and improve culture, and yet they haven’t even asked the question because they’re too busy. With what, harassment lawsuits?
Unfortunately, in this case people who can — indeed, are designated to — affect change aren’t aware that there is a problem when victims don’t feel they can come forward. If HR/leadership are aware, they’re either too burdened to help or they prefer the status quo. It’s one thing for famous Hollywood stars, whose futures are assured, to come forward — and look how difficult even that was! It’s quite another for a young mother of limited means to lay her financial future (and therefore her child’s opportunities) at the foot of a volcano and hope for the best.
We women need to support change even if we haven’t encountered anything #metoo-worthy in our own lives. It’s out there. Besides, if we take a hard and honest look back at our individual histories, #we_have,TOO. It’s there, I guarantee it. And when you do meet a woman who took one for the team and dared to come forward, show her some love because your kids will be riding on her coattails one day.