Young women call for a reckoning of friends and peers, not just employers.
Jan 2018 —
A white dry-erase board reads, “Where Are Our Allies?!” with thick black lettering except for the question mark and exclamation point, both drawn in red. The soaring glass windows of 7 World Trade Center free the sun to strike the board on the 33rd floor, Inc. Magazine’s headquarters. Felicia Wang sits at the apex, fumbling through her notes, while the other 10 women are scattered evenly around its perimeter, gazing incredulously at the view. The Hudson catches the light and winks at the majestically stoic towers that nest the Oculus at their base, a portrait so bright that some of us are squinting as we admire. There is a collective understanding of the irony of being perched so high like Olympian gods in deific Wall Street when the purpose of the congregation is to discuss the societal plague that shadows our strengths; each of us in this meeting have dealt with sexual harassment in the workplace at the various media conglomerates we were employed at.
A poll from YouGov of 4900 people conducted in early 2017 estimated one in three women have experienced workplace harassment. One by one, the pendulum swung between us as we relayed our experiences and responded to each others’. Many attendees wished to remain anonymous either because they didn’t believe their experiences warranted intense public scrutiny or, more often, were afraid their confessions might affect their employment prospects. This meeting followed coverage in the New York Times and The Nation of NYC Council’s reforms in the city’s human rights statutes against harassment and discrimination faced by interns. A glaring neglect for unpaid interns prompted Felicia, a 22 year old intern at Broadly, VICE’s feminist channel, and previous intern at Inc. Magazine, to write an e-mail to a female Associate Editor of Inc. calling for public forums for young women who are less protected by sexual harassment HR legislation. To seek recourse against an abusive employer as an unpaid intern, the legislation requires that the intern be able prove she did “not displace regular employees” and worked “under the close supervision of existing staff.” “The criteria did not account for interns that are substituting for paid workers, interns who’s supervisors are not monitoring them correctly, or other reasons that are out of their control,” explained Linda, a previous intern at Vice and current employee at Broadly.
Felicia’s e-mail was forwarded to the intern coordinator at Inc. Magazine, Justin Orsaris, and they collaborated on creating a monthly forum at Inc. headquarters for these voices to be streamlined and coalesced into specific demands to the leaderships of these publications. Felicia reiterates the necessity of formal and informal support networks for victims of sexual harassment that not only include the victims themselves, but also, women in positions of power as well as the male peers of our own age group who either knowingly or unknowingly turn a blind eye to this suffocatingly toxic culture. “You think these sexual miscreants are older men who were coming of age when workplace harassment was still a societal norm and not as vilified as it is now,” says Felicia, her voice piercing the dusty air, “But, these guys are my age, reading the same news stories and marching to the same women’s movement beat as I am.” An intern from Fast Company described the unsolicited images of genitalia that became common horseplay at her job amongst her male cohorts, a game where the female intern with the most exaggerated reaction would win “the award.” Linda strains a laugh and hides her face in her hands as she describes the harrowing interview processes for some of the internships she had applied to as a junior at NYU. “I was sitting in the room waiting for a second round interview with Huffington Post when a guy interviewing for the same job told me, as he’s smirking, that I would probably be hired because the employer has a thing for Asian girls. ‘ You’re lucky,’ he said.” Countless anecdotes are passed around, ranging from crude comments by trusted male friends in the workplace to inappropriate touching and even an instance of sexually suggestive Tinder pictures of all the female interns of the multimedia department being circulated via an e-mail chain of the male employees. Where were the allies?
Mohammed Hasan is the treasurer and an avid member of Hunter College’s premier feminist club, The Smart Girls Group, which enables dedicated corps of over 200 volunteers to bring gender educational programming (tutoring and mentoring) to underprivileged youth in local communities. “I joined because my girlfriend forced me but stayed because it feels important to know not only how to avoid being a predator but also to know how to expedite this process of equality. There are countless nuances to misogyny, especially in the realm of sexual harassment, and it was important for both of us to help disseminate this information to the younger generation.” Hasan and his girlfriend, Salma Parekh, contribute to various high school and middle school programs across the city by teaching young men and women about consent and the many faces of gender inequality and have come to find that teenage boys generally do not take an active interest or role in combating these issues. Salma Parekh, 20, adds, “You see the complacency in them so young, the idea that this kind of education is just meant for girls. It makes sense that once these kids enter the workforce in a couple of years, they tow the line of respect when interacting with their female colleagues.” Jorge Vargas, a sophomore in Cinema Studies in Tisch School of the Arts, delves into what he believes the #MeToo movement means for him and his male friends, “I feel so paranoid as if even a hug can get me in trouble one day. It feels like we have to be so careful of our actions that there isn’t much capacity left to figure out how to prevent this. Honestly, I feel selfish, but I want to avoid allegations and a lawsuit in my career so I just focus on looking out for my own actions.”
The alienating effects of the movement have been felt by other men who cite a hypersensitive atmosphere being unconducive to efforts against workplace harassment. In November 2017, Bustle published an article titled “A Study On Men’s Thoughts About Workplace Sexual Harassment Reveals That 1 In 3 Men Think People Are Being “Too Sensitive.” The article shares a recent poll by Gallup revealing that although currently 42% of U.S. women say they have been a victim of sexual harassment, only 30% of Americans being surveyed believed people are “too sensitive” about the issue. When observing gender breakdowns, that number is mirrored among both men and women: 33 percent of men and 28 percent of women say people in the workplace are “too sensitive.” The term witch hunt has been used pervasively in social media by citizens, celebrities and politicians alike to describe the reckoning of high profile sexual predators, further implying false accusations and unjust consequences for the innocent.
Felicia, Linda, and the countless other women actively lobbying to project voices of reason are illuminating forces in the dark, seedy crevices of workplace harassment. After two hours, there is still a chaotic nexus of stories and goals circulating the conference room but many agree that publications can do more to mobilize their male employees in this international, humanitarian effort for equality. Educational seminars, discussion panels of aggressors and victims, amplifying female-driven publications like Broadly, The HairPin, Bustle, and Babe.com with better advertising and more attractive internship opportunities were just some of the many ways we decided we could find our allies.