Reading about Gretchen Carlson’s recent sexual harassment case against Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, I couldn’t help thinking about my own confrontation with sexual harassment in the workplace. In some ways, what I experienced wasn’t as bad as the abuses Carlson alleges—I wasn’t propositioned, and I didn’t fear losing my job—as long as I kept smiling and nodding. But what I experienced was just as unsettling in some ways, because my boss was an ordained minister in the CRC. You don’t expect ministers, especially ministers who claim to be progressive about racial and gender issues, to take advantage of your gender.
Over the course of a few years, I consistently dealt with unwanted behaviors, which I often deflected with a joke and a quick topic-change or simply by making up an excuse to leave the room. My boss would work sexual jokes and topics into one-on-one conversations, and he did things like stare at my legs when I wore skirts. I was never propositioned or assaulted, but I did have to put up with a slew of inappropriate comments, unwanted hugs, and an invitation to travel to a conference together that made me nervous enough that I lied about having another engagement that weekend. I later learned that I wasn’t the only woman he had done this kind of thing to.
My case was eventually resolved fairly well, although more quietly than I would have liked: my boss lost his job but his behavior was never publically called out. Still, I often think about what I wish I had known before I was put in this situation and what I wish other women knew about harassment. For instance, at first I thought my boss’s remarks were just very untoward comments, the kind an old man who is a little out of touch with societal and professional norms might make. When I told my friends and family what he had said, we all agreed that the remarks were very inappropriate, but none of us had the training to recognize that these were not isolated incidents but part of a much larger pattern.
It took me two or three years to realize that what I was experiencing was not just crassness but sexual harassment. I don’t consider myself naïve or easily taken advantage of, but his sexual comments were power plays designed to slowly stretch the boundaries of our professional relationship to an inappropriate place. I often felt guilty for not objecting to the early comments and hugs, wondering if maybe he just didn’t realize that what he was doing was wrong. Then I felt like it would be unfair to object later on since I hadn’t objected initially. When I first considered reporting him, I kept backing down, thinking, “I wouldn’t want someone to report my behaviors without giving me a chance to correct them first, so I shouldn’t do that to him.”
Eventually, I talked to lawyers and therapists who recognized the pattern immediately. They never doubted that my boss knew these things were wrong. They didn’t think he was just a “gross old man.” They dealt with people like this all the time, and they recognized what I wasn’t able to—namely, that this pastor was taking advantage of my kindness to trick me into doubting his guilt.
The other thing I didn’t realize was how much my Christian commitments would complicate my situation. As I mentioned above, I wanted to act with as much grace and compassion as possible, in case my boss was actually just mistaken about what was appropriate for the workplace. (After all, he was a pastor, used to having close relationships with the people he worked with, right?) What I didn’t realize was that he took advantage of the grace “nice people” like me extended to him. I was also very concerned about treating him justly , and even after I recognized that his behavior counted as sexual harassment, I didn’t want to report it, because I felt like the damage it would do to him and his ministry would be unduly harsh. “Sure, putting up with crude remarks is unpleasant, but is ending someone’s career really a proportional punishment?” I wondered. The most helpful thing someone said to me was that as long as I told the truth, I wasn’t doing anything to him or his ministry—he had done those things to himself through his own choices. Another person reminded me that positions of leadership come with additional responsibilities—like not abusing your power and not putting the church or ministry in jeopardy through litigable behavior.
So what advice would I offer to church and ministries when it comes to sexual harassment? To women who believe they might be experiencing sexual harassment, I would say, document everything. Even if you just write down the date and a description of the incident, that counts far more than your memory (it shouldn’t, but it does). Save emails. Write down who else witnessed a conversation or touch. Then, consult an expert. Talk to a lawyer, therapist, or social worker (not just friends and family!). Some pastors may be trained in these matters, but not all will be. Gather a strong support network around you, and then be very, very brave.
To churches and ministries, I would say don’t wait for assault or sexual propositions before you take action. Follow up if you hear about or witness even one inappropriate comment or touch. Know that women might be afraid to report even if you ask them directly, especially if they have family depending on their income. You may have to be very thorough and offer total anonymity to uncover what is quite possibly a whole pattern of inappropriate behavior. Finally, remember that our Christian witness is damaged more when we protect those who abuse power than when we deal with those people quickly, honestly, and justly.