I worked as a reporter for about 15 years, and I encountered much of this at one time or another myself. To be honest, the older I got, the less frequent it became, and the more grateful I was. But I saw my female coworkers stalked by men in jail and sources treat interviews with some young women reporters as pick-up opportunities. The majority of my own sexist experiences were the “let’s freak out the lady reporter” kind of bullshit games, including one in which a hog farmer tried to freak me out by asking if I’d like to see him inseminate a sow. The shame was all his when I eagerly said yes and he had to oblige.
But there was one incident that stands out.
I was taking a tour of a local factory as part of some announcement or other. I’d been there several times, as it was a major local employer and covering that industry was the key part of my beat. So I knew the terrain, knew the officials involved, knew the rules of their workplace. I felt pretty comfortable there, and many of the employees knew me on a first-name basis.
So when one of the workers called me over to his work area, I thought nothing of it. I didn’t know the guy, but he seemed to know me. And then he said, “What do you think about this?” He yanked a magazine off of a corkboard near his workstation and flashed it at me: a rather boring pin-up picture of an airbrushed woman wearing a thong and a bikini top that did nothing other than cover the nipples.
I’ve since wondered, what was the process there? What in the world possesses someone to do that to someone else, much less a reporter? What did he hope to gain? What did he think I would do?
I didn’t say anything. I just rolled my eyes and turned away and rejoined my group. I wasn’t thinking much about the story I was supposed to be working on; I was trying to work out what I should do about what just happened. I was conflicted between just ignoring it and doing my job, or calling attention to something I knew was not right but could mark me as a bitch and a troublemaker. Finally, when the reporters were leaving the factory grounds, I called over the public relations woman. I knew her fairly well because we’d worked together so often. “Susan,” I said. “I need to tell you something.”
I told her what at happened, realizing that as I was telling it, I felt guilty. I felt like I should be the one apologizing. In fact, I did.
Susan handled it amazingly well. She told me right away that what happened was wrong, that the she apologized on the company’s behalf, and that she would follow up on it. True to her word, within a day she had sent me photographs of several employees and asked me if I saw the face of the man who had flashed me the image.
Truthfully, I did. I stared at the image long and hard. I knew that I had the ability to hold him accountable for harassing me. But I also realized that on my say-so, he would likely lose his job – one of the best-paying jobs in our area for people with only a high school education. I wondered if he had children to support, a family who depended on him. I wondered how they would get along without his income.
So, I lied. I told the HR person I thought I recognized him, but I couldn’t be certain. I decided to be satisfied with the fact that this man was indeed called into a room, interviewed and photographed. I decided to be content with the fact that this man likely spent a few sleepless nights wondering if he was about to lose his job for acting like a pig to women. I hoped that would keep him from doing it again, though I know that he may have learned nothing.
I told the company I couldn’t be sure it was him, but I asked them to do some kind of seminar to teach employees how to treat each other and guests who come to their plant. It feels weak just typing that.
I still second guess myself. Sometimes I think I should have said I recognized the man. Sometimes I think not. I didn’t out him because to do otherwise would have been harder on me than the alternative. It weighs on me still, even though I wasn’t the one who did anything wrong.
I wonder if it ever bothered him.