So Sorry, Rachel, There Is Still Sexual Harassment

To my dear granddaughter Rachel,

At less than a year old, you are a bit young to hear this message. The immediate challenges ahead of you include walking and talking. But this is one of those topics that there is never really a good time to discuss. While I hope you never experience this, forewarned is forearmed. What I need to tell you about is harassment and violence, particularly against women and girls.

Harassment starts young. A recently released survey from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, concludes that sexual harassment is commonplace in middle and high schools. Nearly half of students experienced some form of sexual harassment during the recent school year, with girls more likely than boys to be sexually harassed. Technology has extended harassment’s reach, with texting, email, and Facebook providing new ways to attack others.

More than half of students have viewed sexual harassment of others. Witnessing it is not as bad as being the target, but it makes school feel less safe.

So, what is harassment? Harassment is a form of hostility—sometimes subtle and other times blatant. It can run the gamut from teasing to physical contact. Often it entails offensive remarks about a person’s gender. Verbal, visual or physical conduct of a sexual nature may be sexual harassment, if the behavior is unwelcome. Unwelcome is the critical word.

I wish I could say that harassment will stop after you graduate school, especially since there are laws that are supposed to protect against workplace sexual harassment. But even so, and after years of high-profile discussions and education programs, workplace sexual harassment of women and men is sadly alive and well. The Business and Professional Women’s (BPW) Foundation report, From Gen Y Women to Employers: What They Want in the Workplace and Why it Matters for Business [PDF], lists the most prevalent forms of gender discrimination seen by young working women:

  • Stereotyping (63 percent)
  • Unequal compensation (60%)
  • Not being treated as an equal (58%)
  • Inequality of opportunities (52%)
  • Being held to a different standard (51%)
  • Sexist jokes and derogatory statements about women (38%)

So what can you do if you encounter a situation of sexual harassment? Say “no” clearly when you encounter a behavior that feels inappropriate. It may be something that you just sense is “not quite right”–honor that intuition. Second, report the encounter to a trusted person like your parents or a teacher. This is not a secret to keep to yourself, even if it feels scary or embarrassing to talk about. Let others help you decide what to do. Being prepared will make you more confident.

It breaks my heart to tell you that, despite all the strides women have made, you will likely still face harassment. At this time in your life, when you don’t even know about the difference between boys and girls, our intention is to raise you to think girls can do anything they want, while still trying to make the world more equitable for all. I can only hope that, with your help, tomorrow will be different.

Love,

GG

Photo from Flickr user JonRawlinson under Creative Commons 2.0.

Part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.

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