Sexual harassment: Why not just quit?

Epically horrible advice about how to handle unwanted advances in the workplace.

Published March 2, 2009 7:59PM (EST)

Oh lord. Found on AOL's Lemondrop, via Jezebel, an article by Laurie Ruettimann about an Israeli study reporting that women who have been sexually harrassed at their jobs do not usually report their harassers, but instead leave their jobs. Ruettimann, apparently Lemondrop's "resident Human Resources expert," does not shake her head at this statistic, nor is she surprised or angered by it. In fact, she writes, "I fully support this course of action."

What's that? You don't understand why a woman should abandon her job, her paycheck, her place of employ, just because one of her coworkers has made unwanted advances or inappropriate comments? Well, Ruettimann explains, "there is no reason, ever, to tolerate a hostile work environment. It's insidious, it's damaging and it's unacceptable. I encourage you to stand up to anyone who harasses you and devalues your work. But if your employer hires or keeps on staff someone who thinks it's okay to treat you like a second-class citizen, that means your company is already broken."

Oh wait, it gets better! Ruettimann concedes that reporting harassment -- which she apparently believes to be an exercise solely for "enlightening the 'perp'" -- "is worthwhile; however, the most effective way to make the harassment stop is to formally reject your company, focus on your career, and get the heck out of there. Implement a strategy of shock and awe." This little nugget of Lemondrop wisdom includes a perplexing link, informing readers that they can click "to read why reporting harassment isn't worth it" (the link just brings you back to the top of the Ruettiman article) and concludes with Ruettiman's kill-yourself admonition, "Trying to change the system from within has failed American women for decades. Don't be a sucker -- say 'I quit' instead."

That's right ladies, with all your high-fallutin' feminism and complaints and desire to make the country, or just your work environment, a better and more equal place! Just leave! Make a big dramatic show of it! Abandon your work, whatever it may be! Trying to "change" anything doesn't work! Look at Lilly Ledbetter! She should have just quit. Because advocating for change, or making your voice heard, never gets you anywhere, right?

Wrong. So wrong. On so many levels. Okay, sorry, this is just such stupidity. First, I am genuinely confused about how anything in Ruettimann's advice translates into women focusing on their careers. In this economy -- but really, always -- telling people to ditch a paycheck, and perhaps insurance with it, advising them to leave a job that perhaps they love, or maybe they simply need, is unsound advice. Don't listen to this woman! She isn't thinking!

Second, Ruettimann seems to make a bundle of assumptions about how workplace harassment happens -- like, all your bosses are naturally in on it and however you have been approached, belittled, harassed or come on to, it is with the full knowledge and implicit support of your whole workplace structure. I am sure, in fact I know, that there are many workplaces in which harassment is accepted, supported, egged on by bosses. There are boys clubs, there are zillions of careers still unfriendly to women, and there are many companies where you could complain about harassment till you are blue in the face and no one will listen to you and in that case, yes, there are a number of decisions to be made about how to proceed and what to do. But that is not true of every job or every boss. The notion that a woman should just give up and shut up because it's certainly never going to change gives no credit to the millions of companies and millions of bosses who would be distressed to learn that one of their employees was being harassed, who would make an effort to investigate the situation and make sure that it stops.

Just as yucky is Ruettimann's assumptions that those women who do choose to report harassment are doing so to "enlighten" their harasser, or that a satisfying alternative is implementing "a strategy of shock and awe" by "formally reject[ing] your company." This isn't the ninth grade musical this woman is talking about, and I suspect that the many women who face harassment and consider making a complaint about it are not so much in it for the shock and awe and dramatic flair of it, or for the big "Jerry Maguire"-style parting scene, or for the thrill of enlightening anyone. They make complaints because they want the harassment to stop, so that they continue to do their jobs without impediment.

Moreover, Ruettimann is dead wrong about leaving a company being the only sure way to get harassment to stop. Quitting may mean that it stops for you, but quitting without ever reporting it is a sure way to make sure that harassment could persist for the next person to follow you into the position. The strategy Ruettiman is proposing here is one that claims victory simply by letting harassers continue without impediment or incentive to stop their behavior.

There are surely plenty of instances of chronic harassment in which one solution might be to find another job and leave the company in question. But to dole out hope-killing, progress-halting advice about how there's no solution, so better to skedaddle than hang around and fight for anything is absolutely some of the most soul-squashing wrong-headed head-hangingly depressing advice I have ever read.

Of course, I did notice that this Lemondrop site also recently featured photo galleries of "Spinsters we love" and "Indie Dude or Ugly Lady," so it's not like I should expect wildly enlightened thinking. But the thought of some woman out there who is experiencing workplace harassment logging on to get some advice and seeing this pap is kind of chilling.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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