In my current work fighting against this Administration’s recently issued dangerous Title IX rule that weakens protections against sexual harassment in schools, I often think about when I was harassed working at a federal agency several years ago by a much older (married) white male colleague. That experience showed me how critical civil rights protections are for preventing and remedying sexual harassment.
At the time, I was the youngest and newest employee, and the only South Asian person in my office. Most of the employees had worked there for many years and were senior to me, including my harasser.
He started with “compliments” which made me feel uncomfortable, like telling me I looked cute in a dress (that I never wore again around him to avoid him thinking I wore it for him). He’d bake desserts for me because he knew I liked sweets, asked me to go to lunch with him, and persisted when I’d respond with discomfort about being alone with him outside of the office. He’d also send notes to my personal email address very late at night expressing disappointment or frustration when I told him I didn’t want to hear about his feelings for me and that we couldn’t be friends. One morning, I arrived in my office with a note from him on my chair expressing romantic feelings and desires for me. Soon after I read the note, he asked me to return it so he could dispose of it. His name wasn’t on that note, and neither was mine. He knew what he was doing was wrong.
When I started that job, I had already worked on gender-based violence issues for years as an advocate for survivors of sexual and domestic violence while in college and law school, a community educator at a rape crisis center, and, at that time, a board member of an organization supporting survivors in Asian and Pacific Islander communities.
Yet despite my professional and advocacy background, it was still hard for me to report the harassment for months. And while I know it’s more than this, I wonder how much growing up in a South Asian community and in my family in particular, which kept matters related to gender-based violence private, impacted my minimization and silence around my harassment for so long.
At first, I tried to ignore his comments, but when he continued, I blamed myself for being “too friendly” or not being assertive enough when setting boundaries. I also minimized it and didn’t know if it was serious enough to tell anyone. I worried what my colleagues would think if they knew, especially since we worked in a small office and many of them were good friends with him. Would they think I was making too big of a deal out of it and causing drama? Or think I was partially responsible? And I felt stupid that I initially thought his interest in me was only professional—that as a more experienced lawyer, he believed in me and my potential as a young attorney. When I realized it was something else, I felt naive, vulnerable, and sexualized.
During all of this, I did well at work. I had a positive performance review and was promoted. Yet I was constantly distracted by how uncomfortable I felt with being in the office with him. I would try to avoid walking by his office so he couldn’t see me (which was hard since his office was right next to mine), cry when I felt so overwhelmed by him reaching out to me, become nervous when we were alone in the office together, and went to therapy because it was too emotionally difficult to work with him there. Even today the thought of seeing him makes me feel nervous.
After several months, I realized he wasn’t going to stop harassing me, but I wasn’t yet sure if I wanted to report it to my boss and initiate a formal response so I went to my agency’s ombuds office to talk to someone confidentially about what happened. The person I spoke with validated my experience and informed me about my options. They said I was being sexaully harassed and they were sorry I was going through this. Given my background, I knew these things are important to tell someone who is victimized; I just didn’t realize how powerful it would be for me to hear it. They told me they could be with me when I was ready to report it and checked in with me after. I no longer felt so alone as I did when I kept this to myself—I felt supported and finally ready to report the harassment to my boss.
I haven’t seen him since the day I reported the harassment. After I reported it, he had to stay home while my work investigated my complaint and figured out next steps, and so I wouldn’t have to see him in the office. My harasser was told he couldn’t contact me for a year, and my work moved his office away from mine.
The ombuds office was critical in helping me finally report the sexual harassment. Having a confidential way to talk about what happened and hearing someone with the agency validate my experience helped me take the next step to end the harassment.
I’m grateful that my boss took my complaint seriously and considered what I needed to feel comfortable at work, but I also know that many people aren’t met with supportive responses and that employers don’t always hold harassers accountable. This is why Congress needs to pass the BE HEARD Act, so that harassment in the workplace, in any of its forms, isn’t tolerated, and so that employers are required to take steps to prevent harassment in the first place. The BE HEARD Act would bring much needed reforms to the current workplace harassment standards, including those that have led some courts to conclude sexual harassment up to and including physical assaults is not “severe” enough to merit a legal response. When courts minimize the impact of harassment, it gives the greenlight for many employers to do so as well.
When I reported sexual harassment, the distraction, discomfort, and stress I felt were enough to prompt action from my workplace, regardless of how “severe” the harassment was. Because my boss chose to protect my safety, I was able to feel comfortable again at work. Every worker deserves no less.