Before Workplace Harassment Had a Name

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