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Why non-judgmentally supporting our colleagues and friends through sexual harassment situations is critical.
Welcome to the generation of #MeToo. This is where women are finally finding their voice and saying, “Enough is enough.” But we have some challenges.
Each woman has to decide for herself what to do when she feels violated. Unless you walk in her shoes, you have no idea what issues she is wrestling with. You can’t “out” her without the potential for consequences that could be life-altering. We can’t judge each other for speaking up or making the decision to not act. But some people don’t understand that.
What do I mean? If I were a single mom raising my child without support, my dental hygienist job would be critical. If my boss had been harassing me, I would feel conflicted and overwhelmed. Some would feel powerless.
It is very easy for people to say, “Leave the job.” But for many of us, it isn’t that easy. We are talking about survival. There are many factors involved in coming forward, confronting bad behavior and taking action. Women should never be treated in such a bad manner, but sometimes it’s more difficult than it seems to extricate oneself from a bad situation.
It is not my place to tell someone how to live her life, but sometimes you feel you have an obligation to speak up. I did it once. A colleague was in an abusive relationship with her live-in boyfriend. He was beyond abusive and demeaning. She would talk as if it didn’t matter to her. Then, one day it impacted my life.
We were driving downtown to a dental event during a hideous snow storm. Her boyfriend decided to join us on this treacherous drive. He sat in the passenger seat and verbally put her down the entire way to the event. Traffic was snarled and barely moving. “Why did you take this road?” “We are going to be late.” He just went on and on and on, berating and belittling her. She calmly told him what her plan was. His response was to snap at her barking that she should go into oncoming traffic to get around the cars that weren’t moving.
He reached over as if he was going to grab the wheel. Instead, he played with all the buttons in the car - the heat, the turn signal, etc. His behavior was erratic and terrifying. I kept telling him, “She is doing a great job” and “Stop patronizing her.” He just got angrier and angrier. Then, it dawned on me. If he behaves this terribly in front of me, what will happen to her when I get out of the car?
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We eventually got to our destination, but I was so unbelievably horrified by this man. He put all of us in danger and I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t put up with this behavior. I felt like I had to say something and made the offer to help kick him out of her home - to no avail. I could not understand why she would possibly want to stay with him, but they are still together years later. I learned it was none of my business what choices she makes, and I shouldn’t judge her for those decisions (even if I could not understand them at all!). But, it was my business as a friend and colleague to discuss it with her, and I will be here if she needs help or ever wants to talk about it.
Recently, a 24-year-old dental student told me that a threat had been made against her by another student. She had gone through all the appropriate channels with the school, but the administration wasn’t taking any action against him. The threat was serious, with evidence to back it up. She was told that the individual had not crossed the line yet. Her dilemma was how far to push it; she wanted a scholarship for her residency but didn’t want to be a whistleblower, as she feared that may hurt her chances.
This is a microcosm of what can happen in the real world after graduation. My priority was for her safety; nothing else matters but that. But she had to decide how she wanted to handle the situation. I gave her a couple of suggestions but felt helpless at not being able to solve this situation for her. It’s important that we advocate and fight for what is right, but we also must respect the individual’s right to choose what and what not to do.
Judgements have been made about women who were harassed and saw no way out (“Why didn’t they take action? Why were they so weak?”). Whether it was fear of being blackballed in their industry, fear of getting fired, or fear for their safety, it is terrible. If other women judge them for choosing to stay in their job and put up with the harassment, this is wrong. We need to support one another without making judgements regardless of our own personal preferences.
You can’t force someone to leave an abuser. You can’t force someone to file a complaint or speak up against a boss. But as women and as colleagues and friends, we can be there for one another regardless of the decisions others make. That is why #MeToo needs to make sure that we don’t judge each other. Instead, we support one another in the decisions we make, and give one another support when it comes time to make the difficult ones.