A group project I participated in during my second year of college left a long-standing impression on me. The five members were immediately cooperative, taking on different responsibilities. Two members volunteered to do the core of the research and took responsibility for typing up the paper. It was a large project, so it was a good sign to see how well we were already working together. Clearly, the professor knew what he was doing when he selected us.
Stop A Stalker
The two members who volunteered to do research were an unlikely pair. He was quiet, studious, and conservative, and she was pretty and more outgoing—not superficial or ditzy, but she had never been taken too seriously. Maybe she was the product of a chauvinistic upbringing: boys cut the grass and rake the leaves, while girls do the dishes and laundry. Or perhaps her attractiveness never allowed her to step beyond the “sit pretty—be seen, not heard” image. We’ve all seen that picture: the girl who develops a womanly look in her early teens and is endlessly pursued by the boys, while teachers ignore her potential and resent the manipulation these girls may wield. It’s really a shame because as kids, these girls don’t have the tools to handle this type of attention, so they tend to manipulate people by acting the innocent fool. Well, it appeared to me she that this young woman on the project wanted to be taken seriously. She asserted herself from the get-go and made it clear she was trying to make a statement. I didn’t know her well, but I was proud of her for what she was doing.
We had six weeks to complete the project, so we met at the student union every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for 15-minute progress reports. By the end of the second week, I could sense some real strain between the two researchers, and when I asked questions about their progress, it seemed he was very stressed about it, and she seemed uncomfortable.
At the halfway point, he called a meeting, and in some tearful moments explained that he had broken up with the female researcher, was very upset, and would be unable to complete the tasks as assigned. She sat shaking her head, looking down and away. It took another week of valuable time to reassign the elements of the project, which then became very sloppy, and the group barely earned a grade of “B.”
Very simply, he had fallen in love with the girl, and she had not returned his interest, and from that point forward, everything grew strained and difficult. She handled the situation as best she could, but clearly he was unable to handle his obsession, and she paid the price emotionally. Not only did she reject him and accept his scorn, but she had to take the blame for the group falling apart. A year or so later, I saw her in another class, and when we “laughed” about that previous experience, she almost began to cry. It was still unsettling to her, and I was sad to see the long-term effect.
That was in 1981, and thinking back, I suppose society had a somewhat chauvinistic view of her response. If she was good-looking and had men fawning over her all of the time, she should have learned to handle it. Today, however, that behavior could be labeled as a form of sexual harassment. Clearly defined, that line is crossed when uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature is brought to the attention of another person with some level of authority toward a subordinate (perhaps an employee or student). In this instance, the young man cast himself as the all-knowing, wise student, and she was simply made to be the “subservient apprentice.” Their personalities dictated their roles, and she was powerless to change that. That’s why things got off to such a bad start. To her credit, however, the lesson had not been wasted, and by the time we met again, she was clearly a more defined student with much more direction. Perhaps his boorish behavior served a purpose. I never did forget that though.
Provide Sincere Opportunities
As the college years wore on, many of us were doing internships. One of my friends in political science was selected from a field of 80 candidates for a promising internship on Capitol Hill. She was confident that her years of hard work were indeed paying off. In packing, she put outfits together she believed were the most professional looking. I thought she looked highly presentable as she boarded the plane. Our gang wished her well and hoped for the best. Unfortunately, the following Monday went very poorly for her. The first official to whom she would be assigned made sexual advances and references to her long legs. This naïve 20-year-old woman thought her abilities and resume had given her a real opportunity, but in a matter of minutes her aspirations were squashed by a man older than her father who assured her his primary decision in asking that she be assigned to his office was because he had seen her leaving the original interview and couldn’t wait to watch her coming and going each day.
She hadn't even been on the job an hour, and already she was calling from Washington, trying to hold back the tears. She asked me if I thought she should walk out, get on a plane, and come home. I said, “Then he wins.” She tearfully agreed. I suggested she call her parents, and with their support she did hang in there and today has a solid legal career. We kept in touch for a long time, and she admitted that “side of the political world” has never really changed. “People are just more careful with the way they word things.” She said the only reason that type of innuendo and pressure have lessened for her over the years is because she is getting older, and new, fresh interns arrive every day. Their innocence is seen as a clear opportunity evidently. “Well, hello, Monica.”
Trust Your Instincts
Driving home from a late dinner, a vacationing mother and daughter (friends of our family) heard a strange sound near the right front tire of the car and pulled into a gas station on a Florida highway. The place was about to close, but the attendant said he could help them, and he put the car up on a rack to inspect the problem. He asked if anyone could pick them up if they had to leave the car, and they naively admitted they were from out of town and on their own. The car was a rental. He nodded understandingly and asked them to wait while he drove to get a part to repair the car. He left the gas station with the two women stranded in the office. The mother became uneasy as she noticed how deserted the area was. She ran to the street and flagged down a passing motorist. She explained her fears to the gentleman, who promptly parked his car, came into the station, and lowered the car off the rack. As she and her daughter were leaving, the mechanic’s truck pulled back into the driveway with three men in the back. To this day, she is sure they had other plans than fixing the car. Thank God for her instincts that suggested something was wrong and that she couldn’t rely on the integrity of a complete stranger.
In school, business, and life, women have to be so careful about passive and even aggressive sexual harassment. Despite their aspirations, despite their simply wanting to do a good job, and despite their hoping the playing field will be level, some men will always believe they have options and privileges over women.
The only way these assumptions will ever change is for women and men to spot the potential for these moments and eliminate them immediately.
Ron Ciancutti has worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He holds a B.S. in Business from Bowling Green State University and an M.B.A from Baldwin Wallace University. He has held his current position as Director of Procurement since 1990. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at email@example.com.