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Just a few years ago, I worked for a small business. I partnered with a man who started with more pay than I was originally offered, even though I had more experience and more education.
Jockeying for power was the name of the game in the “partnership.” He needed to be seen as more powerful, even though he most often had no updates at staff meetings. His exhausting know-it-all attitude came out even when I had more experience on a subject, as if I were invisible or not good enough. He fought for an office twice the size of others available despite my vocalizing concerns of equal respect and treatment in a male-dominated industry. He needed to be top dog even though he didn’t earn it. And he manipulated others into believing I was the problem.
The partner was a family member.
I ended up leaving the job. Some family members chalked it up to a personality conflict. Some took sides without ever hearing my side. And not a single shareholder stepped in to investigate the issue even though they were all aware of the problem.
I wasn’t entirely shocked. Genders had roles growing up in my family. Girls were the cleaners at the holidays, while boys were left with the men to relax. Mothers saw their daughters as extensions of their own images, dishing out harsher criticism and expectations to them. When I did stand up for myself, I was dismissed and belittled as “sensitive” or “emotional” — told to “relax” or “calm down” when I advocated for myself. The devaluing simply extended into adulthood.
It seemed that devaluing women was so deeply ingrained that my path was set in place before I even set foot in the door of the business. If you’ve been abused at work, these details are all too familiar.
When I began working after college, I saw similar patterns — patterns where it was easy to push around the harder workers, often women, the ones who wanted the organization to be great. I saw know-it-alls with lousy work ethics get ahead, using their charm and egos rather than track records to climb the ladder. I saw outright sabotage, false accusations, verbal abuse, and manipulation — and zero accountability when people spoke up. The rules were patriarchal — rooted in competition rather than cooperation. At every turn, I wondered if paths would be different if we swapped the genders of targets.
Let’s change the law
Make no mistake: men can be abused at work just as they can experience sexual harassment or domestic violence. But with 66 percent of targets being women, 53 percent of targets being Hispanic, African American, or Asian (but only 23 percent of the U.S. population combined according to Census.gov), and 61 percent of bullies being bosses according to a 2017 Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) survey, workplace abuse is a perfectly legal form of sexism, racism, and classism — other flavors of abuse of power like sexual harassment — that prevent people from not only gaining power but also from getting basic dignity and respect.
The numbers are significant. With 38 percent of the U.S. population affected by workplace bullying according to the WBI and 327 million people in the U.S. according to Census.gov, 124 million in the U.S. have either experienced or witnessed workplace bullying. That’s the equivalent of the populations of California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois combined. If we replaced the populations of just California, Texas, and Illinois with women only, we’d find the number of women affected by workplace abuse. That’s staggering.
For the most part, only those in protected classes — who can prove their harassment is from being in that protected class — have law on their side. But other laws don’t operate that way: behavior is what matters. Rapists and murderers aren’t only held accountable if their victims fit into a social bucket. But a workplace abuser can get away with severe abuse if gender and/or race, for example, are in common with the target, leaving the target on a slippery slope to suicidal thoughts — even though it’s the behavior that matters.
You may wonder if law will do any good if #metoo flooded our Facebook feeds despite having sexual harassment law. But ask any woman who worked pre-1964 what working conditions were like, and you’ll hear about how the needle has moved on sexual harassment in the workplace. No law completely rids our culture of a problem we realize we need to regulate because humans don’t have accountability without them.
In Massachusetts, we can do something about it, and we can do it now. If passed, the Healthy Workplace Bill, Senate Bill 1013 will hold employers accountable for bullying employees in Massachusetts by creating a legal claim for targets who can prove they were subjected to malicious, health-harming behavior and providing defenses for employers who act preventively and responsively to discourage frivolous claims.
The Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development — where the bill’s been sitting for eight months — has until February 10 to say yes or no to all bills put before them. Calling your own legislators in Massachusetts asking them to ask the heads of that committee to move the bill to the Senate will help tremendously.
If it moves forward, the bill then moves to the Senate and has until the summer to pass into law.
More than 30 other state legislatures have introduced workplace anti-bullying legislation.
Let’s create legal protections for everyone suffering from abuse at work. It’s time.