Ever find yourself in a situation that you always thought you understood, and then when it happened you found out that you had no clue?
I’m halfway there.
I now officially have more sympathy and support for anyone who has ever been sexually harassed than I ever thought I could have. (No – nothing bad at all is going on.) I’ve always listened to the news stories about workplace harassment and felt sympathetic to the victims. While I can’t imagine myself putting up with it, I can see all the issues involved with "but I still need to work here," "but it’s just as humiliating to go to HR," etc., not to mention the effect it would have on someone less... let’s call it "strong-willed" than I am. But I had no idea.
As I’ve complained about here previously, I’m breast-feeding Charlotte. That means that during the day while she’s at day care, I have to pump. Both so that I can continue to nurse her and so that I don’t either scream or cry. Ow. My company is very supportive of nursing mothers – every building has a mother’s room set up with a locking door, a couple of comfy chairs with privacy curtains, electrical outlets, and a fridge. So twice a day I make the long walk from my cubicle at the far end of the building to the mother’s room near the building entrance. This takes me and my pump down the entire length of the department, past all of the offices. The last three offices are three of the less senior attorneys in the department. All are male. All are fathers. All of them are really nice guys – and they’re very supportive. In some ways that’s the problem.
Each of them separately has taken a moment to say something supportive to me – what a wonderful thing it is that I’m doing, how they admire that I’m sticking with it, how much their wife hated pumping so they can sympathize, etc. All wonderfully sweet and supportive things. It’s a great thing when the *guys* are behind you. But...
We’re talking about my BOOBS. You’re a guy, I work with you, and we’re talking about my boobs. ICK!!! When you talk about your wife’s experience, I *know* what the mental image is that you have, and I don’t want you having it about me. At work. It’s great that you’re appreciative and behind me and all that good stuff, but could we please not talk about it? It’s awkward and uncomfortable, because they’re co-workers rather than friends. I’m not going to say anything, because they mean SO well, and they’d be devastated to think that they’d made me unhappy. I’m not unhappy or even very uncomfortable – it’s just philosophically a touch icky.
I’ve found myself cutting through the file library and down the back hallway in order to avoid going past the offices when I have the pump. About halfway down one afternoon it occurred to me: in an environment where I am at home, with supportive people that I like and feel comfortable with, I’m changing my routine to avoid that bit of ickiness. How horrible would it be if the environment was hostile, the people were unpleasant, and the intent was to make me uncomfortable? I like to think that I’d manage, that I’d find or create a solution. But what about people who are less uppity than me? How do they cope?
I had no idea.
I still think that the way companies have to deal with harassment these days is completely over the top. If you look at the letter of the law in our policy, it’s practically designed to terrorize people about perfectly normal interactions. For the love of God, I’m walking down the hall carrying a breast pump. And I’m not hiding the fact that I’m doing that twice a day. If I wanted it to be a secret, I wouldn’t have talked about it at all. Should someone get in trouble for observing the obvious? Hell no. I still believe that if someone is truly uncomfortable they have an obligation to speak up – it’s not our job to read your mind. I’m just saying that now I have an appreciation for how soul-destroying a true "hostile work environment" can probably be. And to anyone out there who has had to live through it, I have this to say: If I have ever said or even thought anything that implied that you were less of a person, or insufficiently dedicated, or being a wuss, or whatever... I sincerely apologize.
Because I never want to experience the real thing.