Speaking Up or Staying Silent?

By Risa Isard



I know a few things about a few things (or at least, as most twenty-somethings are wont to do, I like to think so). Still, there are a lot more things I know nothing about.  Count the topic of this post—sexual harassment at work—as part of that young professional learning curve.

In my mind, the phrase “sexual harassment” conjures up images of some extreme actions—quid pro quo “arrangements,” inappropriate physical touching, a constant barrage of commentary, blatant discrimination, etc.  In reality, though, sexual harassment doesn’t have to be anything more than comments that posture you as a function of your gender and negate your other qualifications.

The first time I remember being sexually harassed, I was in the third grade. Some sixth-graders made me uncomfortable as they “flirted” with me on my way home from school every day. At eight years old, I had no qualms telling my mom, going to the principal, and confronting them (even if I did feel bad when they got in trouble and it felt like my fault).  At 23, I’m at a loss.

My manager (also a woman) and I recently presented at a luncheon for a local chapter of a well-known service organization. For ninety minutes, men made passes at us under the auspices of being charming, friendly, probably even “welcoming” in their minds.  The presenter introduced us as “two, single, attractive ladies;” one gentleman commented to us that he was going to have to leave early, but he’s reconsidered since there are “such pretty ladies;” and yet another made a joke about his wife being out of town and therefore open to opportunities that might exist with one of the other four women who attended the club’s meeting.  The commentary and the jokes went on, and on, and on.

Even though the joke about the member’s out-of-town wife wasn’t directed at me or my supervisor, I couldn’t help but be offended, especially in light of the context of the entire afternoon.  However, I found that while I was upset with the gentleman who made the joke, I was perhaps more upset with the women who remained silent.  How could they just sit there and let their colleague, supposedly their equal, talk about them like that?

At 23, I’m at a loss of how to respond to inappropriate comments and jokes in these situations.  I’m at a loss because on a number of occasions, I’ve watched as women who are older than me—who I sometimes respect a great deal—don’t respond. They laugh them off, say things like “oh, thanks,” or “you’re too kind.” And so, when faced with comments directed at me, I follow suit.  I’m   not proud of it, but I sat through that entire lunch and I didn’t once suggest to anyone other than my supervisor that I felt the club members’ comments were inappropriate, offensive, and making me uncomfortable.

The problem with this is twofold.  When we don’t speak up, the men don’t know that the comments are inappropriate. In their mind, silence (or laughing them off, etc.) is consenting to these comments. But perhaps even more importantly, one day there will be a young professional who observes me responding in this way and they will internalize that as the appropriate protocol for these situations (the same way watching these other women has taught me to not speak up).  I refuse to believe that staying silent or making light of it all is the right way to handle these situations.  Sadly, however, that is the only model I’ve seen.

As a guest at a luncheon, I’m not looking to make a scene. Not to mention, there was a clear generational divide.  I’d guess that nearly all of the men in the room were older than my sixty-year-old father.  And I believe their intentions to be harmless, even if they aren’t. So, what’s a girl to do?


risaAbout the Author
Risa Isard  graduated from Duke University (2012), where she designed her own major in social change, gender, and sports and earned honors for her thesis about the prehistory and early years of Title IX. She is an “everyday athlete,” has been published on espnW, and also blogs at I’m an Athlete, Not a Princess.  She recently landed her first “real” job as the Community Relations Coordinator for the Fresno Grizzlies, the Triple A affiliate for the San Francisco Giants.  She considers herself incredibly fortunate to have had amazing mentors and strongly believes in paying it forward to the next generation.