A Fort Mill woman remembers a male supervisor coming up behind her and using both hands to grab her buttocks. She was in her 20s.
The woman said she was reprimanded because she yelled at him.
“I was a young, single mother, and I was told I shouldn’t have yelled,” Elisabeth Youhanic said. “That it was embarrassing to him, and ‘How would his wife feel if she heard about it?’”
Youhanic, 46, now works at a Fortune 500 company in Charlotte. She said she wasn’t the only woman who had to deal with sexual harassment at work.
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In a survey of The Herald’s readers, 84 percent of women said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment.
A Rock Hill nurse said, in the early ’90s, she was groped during a pre-employment physical when she was hired as a nursing assistant at a hospital in another state.
The nurse, now 47, asked not to be identified in this story. She said she was sent to the hospital’s emergency room for a physical, along with several co-workers. The male nurse conducting the physical gave her a thorough breast exam. She said she didn’t realize anything was wrong until other nursing assistants told her no one else had been given a breast exam.
“I just felt so embarrassed, and just stupid,” she said. “Yeah, I felt violated, but it didn’t feel like a huge deal to me.”
She said she told her husband, mother and close friends about her experience, but she hasn’t told many others because she still feels ashamed. She didn’t report the harassment to the hospital.
“I just felt so stupid at the time,” she said. “And as a nursing student, I should have realized, but I don’t know. I never even got his name. I don’t know who he is.”
A 24-year-old woman who works in law enforcement and lives in York County said she has vivid memories of sexual harassment while in school. She asked to be kept anonymous because of concerns about repercussions at work.
“In middle school and high school, I remember guys thought it was funny to snap girls’ bras or pull up their underwear if they were wearing a thong,” she said. “I just remember seeing it all the time, but most teachers and parents just said, ‘Oh, boys are being boys.’ And now that I’m 24, I look back and I’m like, that’s so not OK.”
“Over the years, we’ve perpetuated the ‘boys will be boys’ thing by letting them do that, and now we have a huge problem of men of all ages getting in trouble for things they did growing up,” she said.
She said society has allowed boys to act inappropriately, something she now sees reflected in adult behavior in the form of “locker room talk” or “men will be men.”
In an informal online survey conducted by The Herald, Dec. 8-14, 84 percent of female respondents said they have experienced some form of sexual harassment, while 34 percent of male respondents said the same.
The Herald’s survey was not a scientific study and may not fully reflect The Herald’s readership.
Of the 102 female respondents and 50 male respondents, women were more likely to say someone they know has experienced sexual harassment.
About 90 percent of the women who responded indicated they know someone affected by sexual harassment, compared to 66 percent of the men, according to the survey.
The Herald reached out to several respondents who said young people, especially women just starting out in their career, are more vulnerable as targets of sexual harassment.
“It’s always the young, the learning,” Youhanic said. “It’s the people who really don’t have their sense of self-worth. They haven’t developed that yet.”
Youhanic said she now coaches young women in her office to help them be comfortable drawing a line when they feel uncomfortable -- for example when a manager asked a woman if she had sex over the weekend.
“The person also needs to understand they may not realize when they’re making somebody uncomfortable,” she said. “It’s really important for both parties to be clear in their communication of when it crosses the line.”
April Simpkins, president of a human resources firm in Charlotte and with the Carolinas Chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management, said companies need a clear policy that explains what sexual harassment is and how reports are to be handled.
Her firm, HRS&S Consulting, provides human resources support for small businesses in 15 industries. She said one concern employees face when reporting harassment is the fear of repercussions.
The policy should not only tell you what (sexual harassment) is, how to report it and obligate employees – all employees – to cooperate with the investigation, but it should also address retaliation. And there should be no tolerance for retaliation.
April Simpkins, president of HRS&S Consulting
“The policy should not only tell you what (sexual harassment) is, how to report it and obligate employees – all employees – to cooperate with the investigation, but it should also address retaliation,” Simpkins said. “And there should be no tolerance for retaliation.”
Simpkins said harassment goes beyond inappropriate touching. Harassment also can be improper jokes and looks. She said people spend a lot of time with co-workers and may want to talk about sensitive or personal issues.
“We’re still all human, and we all spend a lot of time at work,” she said. “But it is still work. You’re still paid to be there to do a job. And I think that needs to come first and foremost. No one should be made to feel uncomfortable at work.”
Simpkins said managers and supervisors should go through required training on how to handle sexual harassment reports, and all employees should be aware of the reporting process.
“Unfortunately, you can’t police everybody,” Simpkins said. “But if you have a culture that says this isn’t tolerated, I think you’ll eliminate the problem faster than organizations that don’t.”
Banter vs. harassment
Across the country, women and men are telling their experiences of sexual harassment. Powerful men across the country, especially in Hollywood, Congress and the media, have been removed from positions because of allegations of sexual harassment or assault.
For the most part, women interviewed by The Herald say they are happy sexual harassment is getting more attention. This isn’t just a national issue to them, it’s personal.
Not all agree. Bonnie Jenks, 76, of Rock Hill said she wishes women would stop talking about it.
“I think we’ve all had these situations,” she said. “And the majority of us have dealt with them very well.”
Jenks said women have fought to be taken seriously in the workplace, and she worries focusing on sexual harassment could detract from that. She said these issues shouldn’t be addressed publicly.
“We – we being the women – have risen so high in every aspect of the world right now, and with these accusations, they are bringing us right back down to the bottom,” Jenks said.
The nurse in Rock Hill said she’s glad to see women speaking up about their experiences. At the same time, the conversation has brought up the shame she felt in her 20s. She said inappropriate touching, like her experience, should be addressed in company sexual harassment policies, as should improper joking.
“They’re both very inappropriate, and have no place in the workplace,” she said. “But unfortunately, a lot of women have had to suffer through it to advance. But in a perfect world, it wouldn’t be necessary.”
In The Herald’s online survey, 25 percent of women said some form of sexual harassment must be endured to advance professionally, and 18 percent of men said the same.
However, more than twice as many that number of men, 38 percent, said some forms of sexual banter are acceptable in the workplace. About 28 percent of women said some form of sexual banter is OK.
Youhanic said the difference between banter and harassment is an element of power.
Harassment is something that is unwanted. It is said and done to make someone feel less than, to make them feel uncomfortable. Banter is a camaraderie thing. That’s something you do with your friends.
Elisabeth Youhanic of Fort Mill
“Harassment is something that is unwanted,” she said. “It is said and done to make someone feel less than, to make them feel uncomfortable. Banter is a camaraderie thing. That’s something you do with your friends.”
The York County woman who works in law enforcement said she’s not comfortable with sexual banter in the workplace. She said there needs to be a difference between joking with friends at a bar and talking with co-workers.
“I don’t want to to be associated with some of these people because of what they say or how they act,” she said. “It’s completely unprofessional.”
Youhanic said sexual harassment is a pervasive, cultural issue in many workplaces, and that both women and men are victimized. Youhanic said many companies say they don’t tolerate sexual harassment but don’t teach employees how to recognize it or how to report it.
Without education, things won’t change, she said.
“I really think the education factor needs to start early, I really do,” she said. “We need to stop putting the onus on girls at an early age and put it on (everyone) at an early age.”
She said she teaches her daughter how to recognize and speak out against harassment. She teaches her son how to respect boundaries.
The woman working in law enforcement said the national focus on sexual harassment is helping.
“The confidence it’s given me to speak up at my own place of work has been great,” she said. “Just because all this mainstream media bringing this to light gives me confidence knowing I’m going to be heard this time. I can say something and I’m not going to get reprimanded. I’m not going to be stigmatized. I’m going to be heard, and I’m going to be taken seriously.
“It’s making me feel a heck of a lot safer to know that I’m going to be OK if I have to report something.”
Hannah Smoot: 803-329-4068
The Herald’s sexual harassment survey
The online survey, which targeted Herald readers, was conducted Dec. 8-14. There were 102 female respondents and 50 males. Here is a snapshot of the responses:
90 percent of women believe someone they know has experienced sexual harassment.
66 percent of men believe someone they know has experienced sexual harassment.
71 percent of women say they have witnessed sexual harassment at work.
40 percent of men say they have witnessed sexual harassment at work.
84 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment.
34 percent of men have experienced sexual harassment.
25 percent of women believe some forms of sexual harassment must be endured to advance professionally.
18 percent of men believe some forms of sexual harassment must be endured to advance professionally.
28 percent of women believe some forms of sexual banter or behavior in a professional setting are acceptable.
38 percent of men believe some forms of sexual banter or behavior in a professional setting are acceptable.