Before Workplace Harassment Had a Name

3464346561_600d8ee203_zIt started with my first job. As section editor of a small town newspaper in 1975, I learned that a male section editor was paid much more than me. I told the top reporter, a woman, and she demanded equal pay or she would march right over to our competitor, the local radio station. She got the raise, but I couldn’t think of a good argument for myself. I was the editor of the non-prestigious women’s section, transitioning it from wedding announcements and gossip to the lifestyles section about culture and health. The male section editor was in charge of business, a much more important subject.

Next, as editor of a city magazine, the publisher brought a cot into my office with a bottle of whiskey and suggested that I not only work an 80-hour week but also sleep with the advertisers right there in my office.

And it wasn’t over yet. I applied for a job as an editor of a small publication and got it. At the end of my three-month trial, my boss took me out for lunch and said she had been sleeping with her boss, the male head of the company. “Rick thinks you’re kind of cute,” she said. She wondered if the three of us could get together with a bottle of whiskey at her place after work. When I said no, she fired me a few days later, tears streaming down her face. She admitted that I “wasn’t Rick’s friend,” and that’s why she had to let me go.

My next boss was a Vietnam vet who hired me as his assistant in a public relations office. Once a week he told me we should take the afternoon off. When I asked if that meant I could go home, he said no. Then he chased me around my desk, fired up on endless cups of coffee.

It would be almost a decade before Anita Hill testified before Congress on national television in 1991 that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. Hill was a year younger than I was, and I watched the proceedings, spellbound. Before then, it had never occurred to me to call out men’s behavior. I didn’t think what happened at work had a name.

The harassment continued into the 1980s and 1990s. Employed as a lowly editor at an automotive magazine, my boss refused to speak to me because I was a woman. It was 1981. His boss had hired me at the grand salary of $600 per month, because I “lived with roommates and didn’t have any expenses.”

Somehow I advanced to become the magazine’s editor. The publisher hired an older man to be my executive editor. One night this man, a Mormon, took a photo of his wife out of his wallet. She was naked behind a bush. He said she reminded him of Eve, and suggested we remove our clothes and chase each other around the office. For once I was the boss in this situation, but there was no consequence to his behavior. It didn’t even occur to me to complain. I just shrugged it off and told him to go back to work.

And there was more, much more. My boss had hired all the men on my staff for more than he paid me. When I confronted him, he said they had to support wives and children, so therefore they deserved more.

I made mistakes along the way. I told dirty jokes to fit in, and in doing so I probably undermined myself and confused the men. I succumbed to the advances of a fellow employee, and regretted it later. A sales rep at the automotive magazine asked me every day for several months when I was going to sleep with him. Mike was funny, good looking and married. His constant pestering wore me down, and actually he was kind of fun. I had sex with him twice. Perhaps he didn’t think it was really going to happen, because both times he felt guilty afterwards and called his wife. A part of me thought it served him right.

At a job in the mid-’90s, when the parent company shipped us a video about sexual harassment in the workplace, the publisher said it was not a problem at our workplace and no one had to watch it. At my last job in 1996, the CEO passed me over for a promotion. When I asked why, he said it had never occurred to him to promote me, that he “thought I wanted to stay on the creative side.”

I became self-employed then. There are no more stories about workplace harassment, but I still have Anita to thank, grateful for a new documentary that tells thousands of women what we had to endure before they were born. Maybe they will have new thoughts about something disturbing at work, and remembering Hill will give them the courage to speak out. I know they will find that her story of power and politics still resonates today.

Photo by Flickr user tuchodi under license from Creative Commons 2.0

Dianne Jacob.mug


Dianne Jacob is an editor and writer based in Oakland, CA. She is the author of Will Write for Food, and blogs about food writing at



  1. In the late 1990s I taught for an Ivy League school. My female supervisor said, “well, that’s what happens when I hire a woman,” when I told her I was pregnant. At a meeting after my son was born she told all the faculty assembled that I was “unreliable” because I had a child.

  2. Wow, powerful piece that I think most women can relate to. My last job I got let go after I complained when the boss told a rape joke. There was nothing I could do about it as it was a temp job; however, they had been training me in other sectors so I knew they had planned on keeping me.

  3. I read this and my first thought was that the author of this piece, while definitely subjected to workplace harassment, also suffers from incredibly low self-esteem and in all the situations she highlights, never seems to demand better treatment for herself from others. That’s not a product of workplace harassment, that’s a product of somewhere along the line, someone teaching the author that she’s not worth much and the author somehow agreeing. We teach people how to treat us.

    • People teach us what behavior to expect, too. I am only 24 and haven’t had any workplace harassment in my job. I’m a really confident person most of the time. But if I had been subjected to that sort of behavior and culture, in my first job, im pretty sure I would have behaved a little more like this writer than the badass I imagine I could be if something happens in my next one.

    • Patricia James says:

      Julie: As a member of the author’s generation, I have to say that your comments on her self-esteem are way off base. Women are treated as second class citizens and it has been going on for as long as anyone has been alive. To fight the kind of devaluation women to which women have been subjected is extremely difficult, especially when it starts in one’s own family. You appear to have escaped that fate and for that I am grateful. However, do not further devalue this woman’s story because you do not identify with it. Rather try to emphasize with her. I imagine as you progress through life that will be come easier with time.

    • R. Larry Schmitt, M.D. says:

      You must be younger than forty. The times have changed. I know Diane Jacobs. There is no low self-esteem. Those were terribly awful times for women. There has been some improvement but, far from enough. Read Jimmy Carter’s new book and get an education on this topic. I have a grown daughter and son. I did not appreciate, yet thought I did, the risks to her just because she was a girl becoming a woman.

  4. You are somewhat right, Julie. My self-esteem was sometimes low during those jobs. I did stand up for myself many times, but my bosses either waved me away or said that the way they treated me was the way that the world worked. In my last job, I gave up after two years. It took a whole year to recover from my bosses’ rages and unfair treatment.

    Now I have been self employed for 18 years. I work as a consultant and editor, and speak around the world. My book has won awards. It’s been a joy to treat myself well and to be treated respectfully in my community. I have learned the lesson in your last sentence.

  5. When I was 22 and just out of college, “girls” were giving typing tests and told that being an English major was “useless” preparation for meaningful employment. I was hired by a small labor law firm in Chicago as a receptionist and “girl Friday”. I had to smile and put up with sexist, inappropriate comments about my dress, appearance and tolerate questions about my sex life from clients (powerful, like Playboy) and the group of lawyers who paid me. I was constantly brushed up against and, on one occasion, one of the lawyers stuck his finger down the back of my pants. It never occurred to me that I could do anything about it! So I moved to San Diego, went to graduate school and became a psychotherapist. Boy, I’m shaking with rage as I write this, remembering how powerless I felt.

    In response to the writer of the comment preceding mine, I can only say that you have no idea what life was like in the workplace forty years ago.

    • Thanks for speaking out, Liz. We are in a different place now, but those memories still burn from so many years ago. I don’t know if you watched the first few Mad Men tv shows. The way the women were treated in those first few episodes, from the ’60s, left me shaking with rage as well.

  6. R. Larry Schmitt, M.D. says:

    In case my earlier comments are not clear on their direction, they are directed to Julie. Now for my comments about this fine article. Today’s young women must read this, learn, and do their best to block this male s–t at every opportunity they have that does not endanger their lives or significantly cut their financial safety.
    Jimmy Carter’s new book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, shocks anyone who is paying attention to recognize how far we have to go. One of many examples, too many USA colleges profoundly obstruct coeds from reporting rapes as it would damage the reputation of the college! Those colleges and universities need to be publicly listed and the presidents of such, mostly private colleges, put stocks for a week.
    Diane, you GO Girl!

    • Thanks Larry. I sent this piece to my best friend from high school, who introduced me to Ms. magazine in 1970, and she replied that she was listening to an interview with Jimmy Carter about this book. I’ll have to get it right away!

  7. A wonderfully written piece, powerfully emotional in its simplicity. I, too, have never forgotten Anita Hill and how she was so ill-served by the powerful men in her life, including Joe Biden.

  8. Great post! Been reading a lot about different thoughts on the history of this. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  9. Thank you. I hope you read the piece in today’s New York Times about the outrageous treatment of women at the chain jewelry stores owned by Sterling. Don’t know if you can read this, but here is the link:
    Plus ca la change, eh?
    Sounds just like my stories from the 1970s and 1980s.

  10. Susan G. says:

    In my 60s now, I can say without doubt that I experienced many of the things Dianne is telling us about in her article. I spent 40 years fighting to be recognized for my skills in a business world filled with men who automatically felt superior to me. It took many of those years for me to see that much of the early treatment received by me and my female co-workers was not just unfair and inappropriate, but downright outrageous. Most women who grew up in the 50s and 60s were taught from a very early age what it meant to be a woman in a man’s world. It took a lot of us some goodly amount of time to wake up and smell the coffee! I am lucky enough to know Dianne Jacob. She may have suffered from cultural assumptions early in her career, as many of us did, but I can assure you that she her self esteem is alive and well. I am happy that the work place is changing for the better, but that women are still dealing with these issues, today more subtle and more slippery to identify, disappoints me greatly.

  11. What an amazing – and telling piece, Dianne, and we all thank you for writing something so important to all of us. I remember when my sister, fresh off of her medical internship and applying for jobs, was interviewed to join the staff at an HMO clinic. At the end of the interview, the (male) director said “Well, I had to interview you but I won’t hire you. You are a woman and all women just get pregnant and quit.” She was so flabbergasted she never took the time to file a complaint. It is absolutely stunning to think this still goes on. It takes women like you the courage to write pieces like this and help raise awareness about harassment.

  12. Thanks Susan, for taking the time to comment.

    I was talking to my cousin last night, who read this piece and told me a story. Back then her boss made a comment about her breasts on a Friday. She stormed into his office on Monday morning and told him never to say anything like that to her ever again!

    I never said anything like that. I was too afraid. I don’t know that you were afraid, but so many women just sublimated their feelings during that time.

  13. Keren Brown says:

    Hi Dianne,
    I had no idea this went on and I admire you so much for writing this. Thanks so much for sharing this with us. Just by sharing this, you are making a difference in woman’s lives.

    • Thank you Keren. Yes, this kind of thing is still going on, here and all over the world, and sometimes much worse than what I have experienced. While there are laws in effect, changing a world view and culture takes much longer. I just shared the video by Monica Lewinsky. That would be worth your time as well.

  14. Cathy DuPont says:

    Thanks, Dianne. Great writeup. I lived the same life although I’m sure I’m older.

    I quote from your blog, ” ‘ because I “lived with roommates and didn’t have any expenses.’ ” I heard the same thing when I went to my boss after hearing from my friend John that he was hired making $2 more an hour than I was and his job had less responsibility. My boss said “he has a family to support.” I was supporting my two children without child support; asked my boss “what do you think I’m doing?” Needless to say, I was dubbed the trouble-maker but that didn’t stop him from chasing me all over the newspaper building.

    • I was single and competing with both married and single men for pay — and losing every time, of course. So you were supporting a family but that didn’t count somehow when compared to a man with kids? These kinds of stories amaze me, Cathy.

  15. Great beginning conversation on this subject. It reminded me that all of us need to be talking to the young people, female and male, in our families and communities, about our stories and how to handle such disgusting behavior, and how to be supportive of women and gays who may be being harrassed. We need to give them some examples of how to confront the harrasser, whether it was directed at them or whether they observed it happening to someone else. We need to encourage them to confront their friends who use perjorative terms about women and gays – the b, c, p, words and assure them that those words are derigatory and unacceptable for anyone to use – even the women on The View!!!

    • My generation, the last with no legal protection against sexual harassment, should have been the last to experience it. That it’s not only still happening in the workplace, but in schools, on public transportation, and now on the Internet, says that we failed to teach our daughters, sons and grandchildren that self-respect and respect for others are fundamental to a satisfying and happy life.
      Perhaps our stories of the “bad old days” will only illustrate that to keep your mouth shut and hope the problem will go away doesn’t work, but just enables it to escalate. Still, I believe we do need to tell them, because that’s an important lesson. I invite you all to send those stories to, and I’ll do my best to get them published.

    • Nina, I have no idea what kind of training is going on the schools about this subject, if any. I suppose there are anti-bullying programs, which apply, but are not exactly the same thing. Good point.

  16. deborah mele says:

    Wow Dianne, this is a powerful post. When all the “Me Too” posts began popping up all over FB, a number of my family members who are much younger seemed to feel that women were exaggerating for some reason. When I spoke of the situation with my daughter, she too seemed to feel that way a bit. When I began listing my own various experiences (I made the decision NOT to share on FB), she was surprised. Hopefully this problem isn’t as prevalent today as it used to be, or maybe both men and women are just more educated about the subject today and behave better.

    • I think people do that because they’re uncomfortable and they don’t want to believe what happened. It’s a defense mechanism.

      Yes this problem is just as prevalent as it used to be. It is even acceptable for the president of the US to sexually assault women. As you said, all those #MeToo posts add up. I wrote my own post on Facebook too. Still, I didn’t say everything.

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