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Being a Woman in a Man's "Tough-Ass" World

by Katherine Bennett 2 months ago in activism

Celebrating Women's History Month with the Cuomo scandal of indiscretions, harassment, and accusations.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

In a month honoring Women's role in history, the voice of female empowerment finds itself muffled beneath scandal. Headlines centered around the indiscretions of a powerful man accused by over-ambitious women.

While the media's spotlight on the issue brings to light the dark side of office politics, it is not a new story. We're flooded with tales of men behaving badly and the questionable motives of the women who accuse them.

But it calls into question if the attention is creating awareness or passive acceptance of sexual harassment in our culture. With every story of a powerful man walking away unscathed, it feels the message grows louder for women is to stay in their place.

Holding our ground, while trying to keep up

Women have been fighting for years for workplace equality. Adapting to a world defined and controlled by men. The fight for our seat at the table means being forced to choose our battles wisely. Navigating a fine line between personal and business amongst the unclear nuances of male-dominated office culture.

Despite being well-defined, sexual harassment is more complicated than a detailed list of actions. It is not always outright sexual propositions or unwanted physical displays. A candid remark on your appearance, playful teasing, and offensive banter, or even lurking eyes that linger just slightly too long - all fall into the definition of harassment.

But when an action is not tangible, like an inappropriate photo or email, it becomes a blurry distinction between harmless and harassment. It's an uneasy gut-feeling, leaving us unsure if the interaction is offensive or just awkward.

The unwelcome behavior doesn’t mean involuntary. We may take part in the antics, in fear of our job or keeping up with the culture of a toxic environment. Leaving us questioning our own actions and if we "asked for it".

Women stay quiet because we feel uncomfortable and caught off-guard. After the moment passes, we rationalize it as a misinterpreted action. And that murky feeling is something made up in your head.

Though simple advice tells us to address the issue immediately, it’s more complicated than that. There is too much uncertainty in standing up to an authority, who holds the power of your future. And the possibility of retribution, especially, if there is no concrete evidence to support your claim.

It makes it an excruciating decision to speak up against crude, sometimes subtle acts of harassment. But the truth is harassment is about how you interrupt the actions, not how it was intended.

The multiples sides to the same old story

Newsworthy stories, like the Cuomo scandal, only perpetuate an already hostile environment. Where women feel it isn't their place to speak up.

When Lindsey Boyland and Charlotte Bennett told their stories of harassment, intimidation, and toxic culture in the Cuomo administration, the response was as expected.

You don’t get things done in this tough-ass state without being a bully.

Governor Cuomo giving a brash apology, remorseful only that his approach was perceived a certain way, but it was never intended as anything more than mentorship.

And instead of solidarity, female journalist Linda Stasi stood behind the Governor and the claim that Boylan and Bennett had a choice. And are only coming forward now for personal gain.

He was completely wrong, numb, dumb and his excuse is inexcusable. But she requested a transfer and got one, which was exactly the right action to take.

[Boylan] also didn’t mention that fact in the article itself that she is now running for Manhattan Borough President, after losing a primary for congress last year.

The publicity has put her front and center. If she couldn’t stand up for herself against a bully, why should we assume she could stand up for the rest of us?

Exposing that Boylan also has a history of misconduct. Remarking on encounters with several black employees accusing her of being a bully.

Not without including her own story of workplace harassment, not involving Cuomo. But her experience with testosterone-driven colleagues and bosses. Her choice was to meet men at their worst to back them down, if only temporarily.

At the Daily News, I was once summoned into the editor’s office where he was sitting with all his favorite male reporters. I swear they were even tossing around a football. I walked in and said, “Do you want me?” He looked around slyly at the guys, and smarmed, “Yes I do. How about right here on the desk?”

Enraged, but pretending to join in on the joke, I swept my hand over his desk, dumped everything onto the floor, and said, “OK, Boss. Let’s go! Right here.” The football morons all started laughing, and the editor reluctantly did the same. I walked out. I was fired a month later.

All leaving to question how we as a culture really interpret these news stories beyond the headline.

Does the spotlight on high-profile indiscretions diminish and desensitize us to the everyday occurrences women endure?

Are we being told to accept the “boys will be boys” culture and ditch the #metoo movement for the mentally tough approach?

Enabler, victim, or another bully?

Faced with our male counterparts' inappropriateness women are put into two roles: enabler or victim. With no middle ground, forced to either meet men at their crudeness or coward away in fear. When a woman does take on the role of victim, her reputation is smeared and motives are questioned.

In the case of Boylan, is her "attempt to benefit from an alleged harassment", just a woman playing the cards she was dealt, like any man would, to make it in this “tough-ass” world?

Empowering the real message

We are so quick to judge and smear women, the accusers, while we so easily forget and let men, the accused, off the hook.

We watch repeatedly as powerful men are unscathed by accusations. While women are left with emotional, mental, and physical scars.

A man's status is promoted despite his discretion, as it silences the voices of females everywhere. Telling unseen victims of assault, who don’t have access to national media outlets, that their story doesn’t matter. That coming forward will hurt their reputation and future.

But if we elect a President who is defined by a personality of “grabbing pussies” and spurring hate speech, then should we judge Lindsey Boylan for using her personal story to her advantage?

In the end, it’s a losing battle for anyone who isn’t a white, privileged male. The takeaway message we get from the countless stories like this is that women need to toughen up if we want to make it in this world.

Accept the culture of inappropriate dialogue and behavior.

Brush off indiscretions like it doesn’t bother us.

Meet an indecent proposal in a raunchy return of banter, in hopes of calling their bluff.

And challenging a questionable act will ultimately lead to their demise, not reprieve.

All silently accepting men’s bad and "inexcusable" behavior and reaffirming their place at the top.

But it's time to speak up. It's 2021, we all have a voice and can change the narrative. Everyone has the right to work and live in a safe environment, free from any form of discrimination.

For more information on workplace sexual harassment, see the links below and don't be afraid to reach out for help.


Tips for handling inappropriate office behavior:

1. Know your rights. Employers are required by law to provide a hostile-free environment. Check company policies for further descriptions on workplace harassment.

2. Talk to someone you trust. Most companies have an HR, but a smaller company may not. HR will help guide you through the process and you can report a claim anonymously without fear of retribution. Know who you can speak with at your company.

3. Make sure any complaint is made in writing and keep a record. If you speak with someone verbally, follow up with an email recapping your conversation.

4. Keep all documents of encounters, even if you are unsure they are relevant. A written journal detailing your experienced, any emails or text correspondence with the person(s), and any messages you sent to a trusted confidant.

5. Retaliation is illegal on both ends. It is illegal for an employer to fire or punish you in any way for speaking up for your rights.

6. Know when to pursue further action. If your company dismisses your claims or retaliates against you, you can file charges with a government agency. They will investigate the claim, which is why having supporting documents, even if they aren’t concrete will be in your favor.

7. Leave. No role, job, or career is worth the emotional turmoil of being degraded. If the company culture is so toxic it encourages unwanted behaviors, it’s in the best interest of your mental health to get out.

Katherine Bennett
Katherine Bennett
Read next: The State
Katherine Bennett

Professional chef. Sharing stories, secrets, and recipes from behind the line of a professional kitchen.

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