Changing culture in working world

As a young girl living in a house made up mostly of women, we slept with our doors unlocked, didn’t worry about walking home alone after dark, and most of all never thought about being sexually harassed. As a young woman entering the world of work, things changed.

What was accepted 20 or 30 years ago is no longer! In those days of old it was a man’s world, and as a woman who worked in that world I soon learned to play the game as did most of my women colleagues. We learned to giggle softly, turn away and pretend that somehow it was our fault for being attractive, walking with just a little extra sway, or even allowing a glance at our cleavage; we learned that it was just the way it was, it was just boys being men or at least pretending to live up to what they had been taught men were supposed to be and to do.

In today’s world the men I knew then would never make such stupid assumptions, nor would they act in such a boorish or disrespectful way. But today we live in a different culture, and for many of those men they are witnessing culture shock.

I was asked recently if there shouldn’t be a statute of limitations placed on some of the claims that are coming forward, and my answer was “maybe.” When the actions are pervasive and ongoing, I would answer emphatically NO Statute of Limitations! But, in many situations, and maybe even most, the culture of yesteryear is vastly different form today.

Can we really charge those who may have made an off-color comment or patted a few derrieres while on their way up the ladder to success by today’s standards? We must tread carefully when dealing with this issue and put the incidents and the manner in which they happened in proper perspective. When I taught at both the high school and college level, I often had to caution my students about going down that very slippery slope — and I feel that we need to use caution today.

From Bill O’Reilly all the way to a recent and beloved Matt Lauer, men who were respected in their professional lives are dealing with the question of “have you ever”? But does one “pat on the fanny” or one “can I buy you a drink” make one a sexual predator or create a hostile workplace? Shouldn’t there be a pattern of these behaviors to make it so? Should one’s career be ended because 20 or 30 years ago they invited their secretary to share a drink and maybe a little more? If it was a one-time incident, maybe not. The line, in my opinion, should be drawn when it is a pattern of this type of behavior.

We have heard recently about the women gymnasts who were sexually assaulted by their doctor, someone in a position of trust. They knew there was a problem, but didn’t know how to deal with it. They also were intimidated and afraid that their careers could be ended if they said anything. One of them came out and commented about the way in which women might dress that could be provocative and encouraging of this type of behavior (she later restated her statement). But that is the crux of the problem. It all starts in the cradle.

Baby girls automatically become “daddy’s little girl” and are taught in the cradle how to coo and win him over. Moving into the world of work women see very early on that the way to the top might just involve a little batting of the eyelashes, puckering the lips just so, and that extra little sway as we walk down the corridor. And boys will be boys, and men will be men, and when it is a man’s world and the women are depending on the man to move them to the top sometimes they simply learn to play the game which too often has meant, smile, giggle, and don’t say a word! Thankfully things have changed.

Young women should feel free to smile without having that smile taken as a come-on. Young men should feel free to treat their women counter-parts the same as they do the men counter-parts. But that will take a while. There is still the “good ole boy’s club” whether we like it or not. After work, the boss still goes out for a beer with the “guys” and the women are usually excluded. The guys still leave early to play a round of golf, and the women remain in the office. True equality will be accomplished when the stigma of “if I invite Susie it will be misconstrued as sexual harassment” and when Susie can feel “if she joins the boss or male co-worker it won’t look like she is offering something more.” Therein lies the challenge.

Whether Trump, Weinstein, Reilly, Lauer, Conyers, Barton, Franken, Moore or the many others yet to be named, are exonerated from the accusations that have been waged against them, this discussion has now made it to the front pages. Maybe, just maybe, women and men can go to work tomorrow and know that if anyone says or does something of a harassing or hostile nature that makes them feel uncomfortable they can go to their Human Resources Department and something will be done. And, yes, even men can be forced to work in a hostile work environment that includes sexual harassment — I’ve known a few.

A last word of caution, not every request or invitation is sexual harassment, and not every pat on the shoulder or touch of the knee is either — we must reach a balance of what is and what isn’t. We must tread carefully when dealing with these issues, but deal with them we must. Every German is not a Nazi, and every man is not a pedophile or sexual predator, and every woman is not innocent; what was and what is has created a true culture shock for many.

So, what is the real deal here? Don’t we all want to feel special, safe, free and comfortable whether at work or play? In her book “Friends with Benefits: Rethinking Friendship, Dating & Violence,” Shahla Khan said, “Practically, speaking up against street harassment is not about being a hero, getting credit points to be in the good books of a girl or a chance to impress anyone. It is about making sure that everyone has the right to enjoy that spring breeze, golden clouds and birds chirping without feeling uncomfortable.” I think that is what we all want. That and the freedom to give your boss a hug without feeling like there is something more to come.

Have a great day.

Vicki Westling is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to