Guest columnist Rev. Sarah Pirtle: Ensuring a safe summer for young women

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Published: 6/6/2022 12:21:21 PM
Modified: 6/6/2022 12:19:12 PM

I want young women in customer service jobs to be socially safe. Right now they aren’t. There is an all-too-common experience that women in their teens and 20s are having with some male customers. It’s a kind of tension like static in the air that they live with. Men, often much older than themselves, make unwanted comments that might be misnamed compliments and draw upon them emotionally for their own needs.

It happened right in front of me this week at a local store. Behind the counter was a young woman I knew. I’d been her teacher. I overheard a retired man, who apparently came in frequently to talk to her, tell her he was 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 stepped in and spoke up. He turned on me angrily. To push me away, he said, “She can take care of herself.”

She can. But it also makes sense for the broad community to care. After he left, she said it got much worse than that with other male customers.

To find out more, I interviewed young women in high school and college. I got a picture that this general problem is ongoing and insidious. Here’s what they said:

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

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

“I feel like I’m being paid to be nice and I have to play along.”

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

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

“It’s hard to work late at night and wonder whether these kinds of comments will escalate to sexual harassment.”

These kinds of experiences move in the direction of harassment in four ways: they are unwanted, they are inappropriate, there’s entitlement, and they imply a sexual interest.

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

One local high school graduate analyzed it, “These are everyday unwanted power plays made worse by our age difference. Even when it’s not sinister, it reflects devaluing women and our choices.”

A young woman working at an area store said, “None of my male co-workers or my supervisor acknowledge that it’s strange.”

Another added, “It feels like these men are taking energy. They are getting something from this, but it’s a power imbalance where I’m forced to just be nice and joke around.”

The workplace study explained, “When sexual harassment is commonplace and left unaddressed in a workplace, these behaviors become accepted as a ‘normal’ part of work life.”

It happens in other settings. A younger local teenager told me a troubling experience she had when she was working in a kitchen at a camp site. “A man about my parents’ age started talking to me because we were working together. He started out by saying that ‘women are complicated’ and jokingly proposed to me, holding out a bunch of rainbow kohlrabi. He talked over me and the other women in the room, taking up all of the airspace in the conversation, acting as though what he had to say was more important, memorable, and relevant. He ignored other women who were speaking, dismissing them and sending clear signals that he did not care what they had to say.”

My intervention this week was not expected. It was a gut reaction to protect someone I care about. I wanted to add social weight and be an active bystander.

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

Could we all say — each in our own ways — we’re not comfortable with this. This is not OK. This has to change.

Rev. Sarah Pirtle is the minister of the Village Church in Cummington and the author of five books including the newly released edition of “An Outbreak of Peace,” awarded outstanding book of the year on world peace.

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