This is my personal sexual harassment story. It began in 1978 and continued through 1981, when I was working as an engineering co-op at the Union Carbide plant in Bound Brook, NJ. The harassment was both open and subtle and came from many sides: my coworkers, my management, the industry, and even my fellow working women.
Some of the harassment was out in the open and visible. None of it was aimed directly at me so at the time, I tried to just ignore it.
My coworkers: free calendars
In many of the work areas, it was common to see photos of half-naked women hanging on the wall. Calendars featuring these images were given out by tool companies for free. Here’s one from Snap-on Tools, circa 1974.
I don’t think my coworkers were out to get me or shame me. I think it was a free calendar . So what the heck, hang up the free calendar. Messages like these were common in the day and folks didn’t think much of it at the time. But as a 19 year old, working in a man’s field, I felt “other” and vulnerable. And as a 19 year old newcomer, I knew I was powerless to do anything about it so I pretended it wasn’t there.
But there it was. Every. Damn. Day.
My management: names and job scope
Harassment from management came in two forms.
The first was the simple way they referred to the other women in the office as “The Girls”. We had a fairly large staff of secretaries who did all the typing, filing, scheduling, and generally kept things running so that “The Men” could get on with the business of engineering and management.
I know it’s a simple thing to refer to grown up women as children but it did send a message of not being on the same level. And if anyone had referred to a group of males as “The Boys”, we would have known even at that time that it was racist. But in 1978, sexism was allowed even though racism was not.
The second form of harassment was in the type of work I was given. There were other college students at my location studying engineering and working in the co-op program. They were all males.
The males worked side by side with the engineers, doing analysis and designing studies for the company. I was sent to the library to do research. And I was great at it, finding obscure publications written in German but understandable because of the technical terms, charts, and diagrams. I found answers to problems they had been trying to solve with all that analysis and design, and saved them weeks of study and evaluation.
Eventually I earned their respect and was given other things to do. Which brings us to the subtle harassment.
Much of my feeling “other” and reinforcing my role as an outsider was subtle. It was more about the environment and the attitude than about things you could see or hear.
The industry: tools and equipment
My first job was to diagnose and repair a machine that fed fiberglass into a plasticating extruder. It was hot and itchy. Other than that, it was no problem.
One of the next jobs was to work on a crew making insulated wiring using a plasticating extruder. The machine was big and clunky. There was a 3″ screw running down the center which we installed and removed using a honking three foot long pipe-wrench. Here’s a schematic of the extruder.
This equipment and the tools we used to work on it were designed by men for men. The upper body strength, the grip strength, and even the hand size were all beyond me. Still I persevered and kept up with my coworkers, using my knowledge of physics and mechanics to get the most out of any force I was able to apply. Eventually all of that effort took its toll and I injured my wrist permanently. It still bothers me today and occasionally it swells.
My fellow working women: denial
The surprising source of harassment, and a big reason I felt vulnerable, was my fellow pioneers, the other working women.
The message was simple. Don’t screw this up. If you screw this up, they’ll kick you out and they’ll never let any of the rest of us in. The future of working women rests on your ability to tough this out. So I did.
So I couldn’t even think about the differences or speak up for myself. There was nobody to talk to about it and it wouldn’t have made any difference anyway. Talking and thinking were not going to solve this. So I didn’t talk or think.
We’ve come a long way, baby
So now the calendars are gone. The name calling is pretty much gone, but mostly because we don’t have secretarial pools any more. The overt symbols of harassment have disappeared. The subtle things are still around. Job assignments and salaries are still a challenge. The attitude of my fellow working women still makes me feel alone and vulnerable.
But it is better for me than it was for my mother. And much better for me than it was for my grandmother. So here’s hoping that my granddaughter will some day read this and think it’s funny and quaint.
Honey, if you’re reading this, kick some misogynist ass for your granny.