Ensuring a safe summer for young women

I want young women in customer service jobs to be socially safe. Right now they are not. There is an all too common experience that women in their teens and twenties have with some male clients. It’s a kind of tension like static electricity in the air they live with. Men, often much older than them, make unwanted comments that could be misnamed compliments and emotionally draw inspiration from them for their own purposes.

It happened right in front of me this week at a local store. Behind the counter was a young woman I knew. I had been his teacher. I overheard a retired man, who apparently came to talk to her frequently, telling her that he felt lonely and that he wanted her to understand him. He invited her to ride with him and said he would pay for her to have her nails done. Even after she told him she wouldn’t, I couldn’t just watch. I intervened and took the floor. He turned on me angrily. To push me away, he said, “She can take care of herself.”

She can. But it also makes sense that the wider community cares. After he left, she said it was much worse than that with other male customers.

To learn more, I interviewed young women in high school and college. I have a picture that this general problem is continuous and insidious. Here is what they said:

“I asked a customer if he wanted the receipt, and he said – Only if you put your Facebook name on it.”

“We get so-called jokes like, ‘When are we going out for lunch?'”

“I feel like I get paid to be nice and I have to play along.”

“You have to take everything they say and respond to it pleasantly.”

“It’s an understanding that he can say whatever he wants.”

“It’s hard to work late at night and wonder if those kinds of comments are going to escalate into sexual harassment.”

These types of experiences point to harassment in four ways: they are unwanted, they are inappropriate, there is a right, and they involve a sexual interest.

A national resource center called Workplaces Respond to Domestic and Sexual Violence writes about the seriousness of workplace harassment: “Early work experiences shape future career paths. For young workers, teenage girls in particular, early experiences of workplace sexual harassment can have negative repercussions throughout their careers, resulting in career change, lower lifetime earnings and increased vulnerability workplace harassment and violence in the future.

A local high school graduate analyzed it: “It’s daily unwanted power games made worse by our age difference. Even when it’s not grim, it reflects the devaluing of women and our choices.

A young woman working at a local store said, “None of my male co-workers or my supervisor acknowledges that it’s weird.”

Another added: “Looks like these men are gaining energy. They get something out of it, but it’s a power imbalance where I’m forced to be nice and joke around.

The workplace study explained: “Where sexual harassment is common and unaddressed in the workplace, these behaviors are accepted as a ‘normal’ part of working life.”

It happens in other contexts. A young local teenager told me about a disturbing experience she had while working in a kitchen at a campsite. “A man my parents’ age started talking to me because we were working together. He started off by saying that “women are complicated” and jokingly proposed to me, handing me a bouquet of rainbow kohlrabi. He talked about me and the other women in the room, taking up all the airspace of the conversation, acting like what he had to say was more important, memorable, and relevant. He ignored the other women who were talking, dismissed them, and sent clear signals that he didn’t care what they had to say.

My intervention this week was not planned. It was a knee-jerk reaction to protect someone I love. I wanted to add social weight and be an active spectator.

Summing up the problem, one young woman said, “Right now you could never say — I’m not comfortable with it.

Could we all say – each in our own way – that we are not comfortable with this. It’s not correct. This must change.

Reverend Sarah Pirtle is a minister at the Cummington Village Church and author of five books, including the new edition of ‘An Outbreak of Peace’, which won the Outstanding World Peace Book of the Year award .

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