When I was 17, I worked at a retail store part-time after school and on the weekends. For the most part, it was great fun. I was friends with many of my coworkers and we often hung out after work, going out to eat or to drink or to someone’s house. It was a time when adolescent experimentation and substances crossed paths, and saucy and regrettable things sometimes happened.
Distinct from after-hours shenanigans, however, was a manager at the store who clearly crossed boundaries. At first, I thought it was just me he made inappropriate, overtly sexual comments to. He’d slide by me when I was organizing merchandise in an aisle and press his body against mine. He’d say things like, “I’d love to see you on top of me,” and “I’d let you do all the work and take it real slow.”
As I ruminate about what many young girls and women endure at the hands of unscrupulous men, news that Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson will be awarded a settlement in a harassment lawsuit she filed against former CEO Roger Ailes is so incredibly refreshing. Perhaps more stunning than the whopping $20 million she was granted is the heartfelt and straightforward apology Fox issued. “We sincerely regret and apologize for the fact that Gretchen was not treated with the respect and dignity that she and all of our colleagues deserve,” they said in a statement.
For me, the harassment got worse before it got better. One night I was out back behind the store after taking the trash out to the dumpster. It was dark and no one else was around. He came out and told me his car was parked right there. He knew I was learning to drive and asked if I’d be interested in getting in the car with him and he would show me how to do a couple of things.
I knew I shouldn’t, and certainly if I wouldn’t put up with an ask of that nature from someone of his ilk today, but I was young and at least somewhat naïve. I said OK.
I got into the driver’s seat and he into the passenger seat and he started to teach me to how to start the car and how to pull out from the parking spot. Then he turned on the tape deck in the car (yes, before CDs and satellite radio) and started to play the incredibly vile and explicit song, “Put It In Your Mouth.” If you’re not familiar, the lyrics include gems like, “She said put it in her mouth. I said my motherfuckin mouth,” and “You wanna go down why not. I be like Herbie and Hand-you-a-Cock.”
I looked over and could see his white teeth gleaming in the dim light of the alley. He was smiling wide and reached his hand out to push my head down towards his lap. “You could do me a solid,” he said.
My flight instinct kicked in at that moment and I jumped out of the car and slammed the door.
Even after that, I somehow managed to brush off the instance and didn’t tell anyone. I told myself that he was harmless, that he was just a flirt. I knew that a little part of me was also afraid. He was my boss and wielded power. He was also a lot larger than me. I sometimes closed the store with him alone and knew that at any moment he could take advantage of me in ways much more frightening than words.
He continued to touch and whisper crude sexual remarks and ask for sexual favors throughout the following months. One day, I was walking by my coworker who was up on a ladder putting items on a higher shelf and the manager was “spotting” her below. I overheard him say something inappropriate to her about how he wished she was wearing a skirt so he could see more. That’s when I knew I wasn’t alone. I felt empowered to do something.
I said something that day to the female coworker, who seemed immediately grateful and relieved and share her many moments of getting sexually harassed by the same manager.
I started to quietly talk to other female employees and found that many of us had stories about how the manager had said or done questionable things. I approached our store manager who was this manager’s boss, and told him about what was happening under his nose in the store. He was immediately concerned and arranged for us all to file formal complaints in writing. He said he would report the manager right away and that we shouldn’t worry — that justice would prevail.
We hadn’t heard anything about what had been done with our letters or where in the process they were with anything, but several weeks later, we caught wind that a change was coming to the store. The manager in question was being transferred to another store. Not only wasn’t he being brought up on any disciplinary charges, but he was actually given a promotion.
It was my first real job with corporate policies and this was the lesson I learned. Throughout the rest of my professional career, I understood that men were often in positions of power and got away with anything they wanted, including sexually harassing the women who reported to them. We had no voice and no way to fight back. The system was stacked against us.
Fox’s settlement almost feels too good to be true. I never would have imagined an outcome so promising after what I went through and witnessed time and again throughout the many jobs I’ve held. And from the conservative news sausage factory no less! The message that this sends is incredibly important and far-reaching, and hopefully one that sets a precedent for a zero tolerance policy in practice at workplaces far and wide.
Yet, while justice in this case has been served, there are many more women who Ailes caught in the crosshairs of his highly unprofessional and illegal behavior in his leadership position at the network. Is he between bars serving time for his crimes? Has he been shamed into the corner never to get work in this or any town again? No, he’s moved on from Fox with his head held high, the subject of magazine profiles and conservative admiration, and he is now the voice of so-called wisdom and guidance for the one and only Donald Trump.
We’re taking decisive steps in the right direction for certain, but we have many miles to go before sexual harassment, particularly against women in the workplace perpetrated by men in power, is stamped out once and for all.
More from BUST