By Diane Palombi, OD
April 11, 2018
Sexual harassment can take many forms. Before retiring several years ago, after 30 years as an optometrist, I experienced a few such incidents, as have many of my female optometrist friends.
Neither I, nor any of my friends, have been coerced into sexual favors by a work superior. But almost all of us have experienced harassing situations that made us uncomfortable.
My own stories, and those of my friends, show that sexual harassment takes many forms, which could easily arise in your own office. Here are the forms of it that my friends and I have experienced, and which you should be on the alert for as a practice owner, or be ready to report as a practice employee.
Unwanted Physical Contact
The worst for me was that I had my derriere grabbed, not once, but twice. Once was on the dance floor at a party, where both optometry school faculty and students were present, and the offender was faculty.
The second, I was on a pay phone in a hotel lobby making arrangements to meet a doctor in Phoenix for a job interview the next day. The man, who grabbed me, was a stranger, who smiled at me after the offensive behavior, and walked off.
One of my friends did work-study in college. You were supposed to dress professionally. On her first day, her supervisor noted that she had a hair on her bare chest, reaching out to touch her chest to show her this stray hair. She was wearing a v-neck dress. My friend wondered why he was looking so intently at her chest in a work setting to notice something as minute as a hair that had blown there, and she was outraged that he would feel the liberty to reach out and touch her chest.
My mother worked much of her life. She started at 16 at the local movie theater. The assistant manager was a total creep. If she bent over the candy counter, he would goose her in the rear with the little broom he carried around. She felt uncomfortable enough that she would never go to the basement supply room alone, and would get an usher to escort her, when this guy was working.
Disrespectful & Belittling Comments
My mother also was a church secretary. There was one minister who would hit her on the arm, and call her a “dummy,” if she messed up something on the computer. Something tells me–and other women I’ve spoken to about this–that he wouldn’t do that to a man.
The same friend, who experienced the unwanted touching of her chest, gave lectures about retirement counseling later in life. While waiting to give her presentation, some of the men in the audience were commenting about her good looks. Some of the comments were off-color. She had the courage to call the worst offender out in front of the whole audience. He was embarrassed that she had heard him. Small world, she had an appointment with the offending man after the presentation, and he apologized for his comments.
I was a student back in the days when some male college faculty did not take female optometry students seriously. We were in college supposedly for our MRS. Degree; i.e. to meet and marry a guy with better earning potential than ourselves. In professional schools we were stealing positions from the more deserving males. After all, we were only there to get married and stop working once we had children.
One faculty member said he was surprised that the women in my optometry school class were both attractive and intelligent. Like they were mutually exclusive traits. I once, as a student, interviewed with an optometrist for a job in a nice pant suit. He had the nerve to say that all his women employees had to wear dresses in his office. He also had the reputation of hitting on the female optometry students, both single and married, at group outings like golf tournaments.
One of my friends worked with a man, who often made lewd comments toward her. One time she was filling salt shakers for an office function using a napkin for a funnel. He commented that he would “like some of that action the salt shaker was getting.” Fortunately, my friend had the back bone to complain about her co-worker to her superior, explaining that he was creating a hostile work environment for her, and one of them needed to be reassigned. The offender was moved out of her office.
Employers were honest about under-paying us back in the early days of my career, in the 1980s. One friend said that she was told that men had to support families, so they deserved more pay for the same job. Another friend was told that a woman with a husband with a “good job” should stay home and take care of her kids. She should let someone else, who really needed the job, have it. I guess our income was totally disposable, like we were only working to buy jewelry and clothing.
Pressure to Participate in Inappropriate Activities
My friends in other professions had issues also. One was the only woman branch manager in a savings and loan company. After a meeting of the area companies, the other male branch managers from her region wanted to go to a strip club. She rode with them, so she was forced to go with them. Other companies’ branches managers were also there, and one of them (who only knew her from other group meetings and seminars) sensed her discomfort and drove her home. The next day my friend got in trouble with CEO of her savings and loan group for “not being one of the boys.”
We can say “times were different back then,” which they were, but the forms of harassment, and disrespect, which my friends and I experienced still occur today. The hope is that they will occur less frequently as we become more educated about what it takes to create a respectful, safe workplace.
Practice owners, how do you ensure that all employees are treated with respect by co-workers, patients and vendors? Practice employees, have you experienced harassing behaviors that you needed to speak with your employer about? What solutions were arrived at to fix the situation?
Diane Palombi, OD, retired now, is the former owner of Palombi Vision Center in Wentzville, Mo. To contact her: firstname.lastname@example.org