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“You just accepted it”: why older women kept silent about sexual harassment — and younger ones are speaking out

Older women worried they’d be ignored or fired. Now many are excited about what #MeToo means for their daughters’ generation.

Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Shar’Ron Maxx Mahaffey was the sales administration manager for an international electronics company about 20 years ago, when, she says, a vice president at the company developed a crush on her.

Mahaffey, now 64, wasn’t interested, but she said she knew that if she rejected the VP outright, “everything would’ve changed” for her at her job. She had gained a lot of authority at the company and worried it would be taken away if she offended the man.

So Mahaffey did what she calls “ducking and dodging”: avoiding the VP’s advances “without having to say, ‘Leave me alone.’” Sometimes that involved physically staying out of his way in the office. “I would have to jump one elevator to the other elevator to outsmart him so we wouldn’t end up on the elevator together,” Mahaffey recalled.

Shar’ron Maxx Mahaffey
Shar’Ron Maxx Mahaffey.

Mahaffey, who now lives in northern Virginia, was one of about 40 women, ranging in age from their 20s to their late 60s, who participated in a series of focus groups Vox convened with the help of the polling firm PerryUndem. We wanted to find out how different generations of women think about sexual harassment and assault in the age of #MeToo. We used the findings to develop a nationwide survey, along with Morning Consult, a nonpartisan technology and media company, to measure the attitudes of women of different ages across the country.

One of our key findings in the survey was that women 35 and over were more likely than younger women to say they’d kept silent about sexual harassment they experienced at work. In our focus groups, one possible reason for the difference emerged: Looking back on their lives and careers, older women tended to see sexual misconduct as something they simply had to put up with. As one 50-year-old woman put it, “in the ’80s and in the ’90s, harassment was accepted. It wasn’t talked about.”

Younger women, meanwhile, were more likely to see sexual harassment at work as something they could change — they described reporting the behavior to authority figures, and sometimes confronting the harassers themselves.

As critiques of the #MeToo movement have rolled in, a media narrative of generational divide has emerged: Some have speculated that younger women define sexual harassment more broadly than older women, or that older women have more doubts about #MeToo. Megan McArdle wrote at Bloomberg, for instance, that women in their 40s see a difference between Harvey Weinstein and “guys who press aggressively — embarrassingly, adulterously — for sex,” but that “to women in their 20s, it seems that distinction is invisible.” But when we looked at a cross section of American women, we found that attitudes toward #MeToo and harassment were generally similar — it was their willingness to report their experiences that was different.

And rather than resenting younger women for their willingness to speak out against harassment, older women frequently applauded them. Some felt inspired by their younger counterparts, while others described helping young women come forward. Overall, what we found among older women was a sense of hope that perhaps their daughters and granddaughters would feel more able to speak up than they had.

Women of different ages experience harassment at similar rates — but younger women are more likely to talk about it

In the Vox/Morning Consult survey, younger women were about as likely as older women to say they’d been sexually harassed at work at some point in their careers — 29 percent of women between ages 18 and 34 said they’d been harassed, compared with 33 percent of women 35 and over. Where the two groups differed more substantially was in their responses to harassment — 53 percent of older women who had been harassed at work said they had never reported it, while 44 percent of younger women said the same.

Older women were about as likely as younger ones to say they’d told a boss or human resources department about harassment — 27 percent of women 35 and over had talked to a boss or HR rep about the issue, compared with 29 percent of women 18 to 34. But younger women were more likely to have told colleagues they’d been harassed — 25 percent had brought up an incident of harassment with co-workers, compared with 19 percent of older women.

These aren’t huge differences — in fact, our survey found few large differences between the two age groups we compared. But they pointed to a pattern we also saw in our focus groups, in which older women said that sexual harassment wasn’t talked about when they were younger and that, especially earlier in their careers, they worried they would be retaliated against — or simply ignored — if they reported sexual misconduct at work.

Michelle Blandburg, 66 and now retired after many years of work at a credit union, said a former boss used to ask her questions like, “What bra are you wearing today?”

“I just dismissed it,” she said.

Later, however, she learned he’d been making the same kinds of comments to one of her female co-workers. “But neither one of us thought to or felt we would be believed if we went to HR and complained,” Blandburg said. “He’s a VP, and here we are, underlings.”

A 50-year-old woman, who asked that her name not be used, said harassment wasn’t talked about when she worked at an accounting firm at the age of 19 or 20. When partners made suggestive or flirtatious comments, “you just accepted it,” she said.

Women in the groups talked about difficulties discussing the issues of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault not just at work but in their families.

Laura de la Torre, 69, said she was abused as a child by her uncle. “On my 50th birthday, I gave myself a present of telling my mother and my aunt” about the abuse, she said.

Laura de la Torre
Laura de la Torre.

Her mother asked her why she’d never said anything before. De la Torre’s response: “I couldn’t trust you to protect me, to believe me.”

When she called her aunt (who was not the uncle’s wife), de la Torre said, the aunt kept referring to the uncle respectfully as compadre, or “godfather.”

“I thought, you don’t get it, do you?” de la Torre said. “He’s not a godfather, he’s not a compadre, he’s a child molester. And I hung up.”

Still, “I felt like I had done something for myself,” de la Torre said. “I needed to do that for me.”

Not reporting took a toll

For many women, the feeling that they couldn’t talk about harassment or abuse left them forced to deal with the problem alone. De la Torre described the emotional toll of keeping the secret of her uncle’s abuse: By age 50, she felt she’d been “dragging this around like this stinking weight behind me all these years.”

Mahaffey, meanwhile, described the stress of feeling that she had to “duck and dodge” her way around men’s inappropriate behavior. Of her efforts to avoid the VP’s advances, she said, “it was exhausting when I got home and I would think about it.” She would think, “I’ve got to go back in there tomorrow,” she said, “and then the same thing would happen.”

It wasn’t just the VP, Mahaffey said. At around the same time she was dealing with his advances, she went on a business trip to Chicago, where a male colleague who lived in the area took her out to dinner and a jazz bar. She assumed he was just being nice, she said.

But then he took her to a place where she saw couples walking together and kissing. It turned out to be a popular makeout spot.

She sat there “frozen,” she said, thinking, “Oh, god, please don’t let him, don’t let him, don’t let him ask.” Eventually, she said, he realized she wasn’t going to give him an opening, and he drove away.

“I was so scared,” she said. “I was just shaking because I knew if he approached me, I would reject him. If I rejected him, I knew everything was going to change between us.”

If she directly rejected his advances, she’d lose their friendly workplace relationship, she explained, “and I just could not afford to do that.”

Younger women were more comfortable speaking out about harassment

Women under 35 in our focus groups described many of the same kinds of unwelcome experiences with men at work. But in many cases, they also felt comfortable speaking up about those experiences. Angela, 23, who asked that only her first name be used, said that in a previous job, a male co-worker repeatedly asked her inappropriate questions, like whether she’d had sex with anyone since a recent breakup. One day, she confronted him directly.

“I was like, ‘Dude, shut the fuck up,’” she said. “This is none of your business, I don’t like you, you’re the scum of the earth. And if you say something to me like this again, we’re going to have a problem.”

Angela said she felt comfortable confronting her co-worker in part because he wasn’t her superior. “I also didn’t like my job,” she said, “so if he was going to try and do some kind of retaliation, I honestly didn’t care.”

Samantha Goldstein, 27, said she had experienced — and reported — sexual harassment multiple times in her life. A janitor at her middle school made inappropriate comments to her, she said, offering her money and free food from the cafeteria to try to get her to trust him. She reported him to school officials, and he was fired.

As an adult, Goldstein was at a job interview when the male interviewer began brushing his foot against her leg under the table. After the interview, he began texting her. Goldstein didn’t get the job, but she reported the man, and he, too, was fired.

“I’ve always been one to be more vocal,” Goldstein said, “and never really been fearful of voicing myself.”

Not all younger women in the focus groups were confident that they would be believed or supported if they reported harassment at work. One 24-year-old woman, who asked that her name not be used, said there was no HR department where she worked. She said that if she were ever harassed to the degree that she was very uncomfortable, “I would look for a new job because I don’t really think there would be much to be done.”

“I don’t want to put myself in the line of fire,” she explained.

Meanwhile, some older women said they had reported some of their experiences. Mahaffey did eventually bring up the VP’s advances with her company’s HR department when she was about to leave the company to move to another city, though she did not file a formal harassment complaint. The HR department ultimately wrote her a favorable letter of recommendation, she said. The VP had already been reassigned to another region for reasons unrelated to harassment; she never heard from him again.

But overall, older women were more likely than younger ones to describe sexual harassment as something they had to deal with in silence, on their own.

Older women may play a role in helping younger women come forward

When it comes to what might have changed to help younger women feel more comfortable speaking up about harassment than their older counterparts, our survey results offer some hints, but no single clear answer.

Younger women were a bit more likely than older ones to believe that if they reported sexual harassment to a boss or HR department, the harassment would stop — 37 percent of women ages 18 to 34 were very confident this would happen, compared with 31 percent of women 35 and older. Younger women were also somewhat more confident that their reports would be taken seriously — 41 percent were very confident of this, compared with 33 percent of older women.

Though several younger women in the focus groups talked about the possibility of finding another job if they had to leave due to harassment, younger women in the survey were not much more confident about this prospect than their older counterparts — 28 percent of women 18 to 34 were very confident they could find a new job quickly, compared with 23 percent of women 35 and older.

In the focus groups, however, older women offered some theories as to why their younger counterparts might be more likely to come forward. Patricia, 64, who asked Vox not to use her last name, noted that women today are less likely to be isolated in male-dominated fields. At the beginning of her career in the space industry, she didn’t have female colleagues in her field: “I was the only one, period.” Now, said Patricia, who has retired, her old office is “full of women.”

The presence of more senior women in workplaces today may help younger women report harassment. The presence of female employees at every level in a company hierarchy can have a major influence on how likely female employees are to be harassed, Frank Dobbin, a sociologist at Harvard University who studies workplace diversity, told Vox. A critical mass of women in positions of power can help junior women report problems.

“If there are good examples of women who have succeeded,” he explained, “you can talk to them.”

Women in senior roles also send the message that the organization values the contributions of women.

Patricia, the 64-year-old who worked in the space industry, described playing a protective role for younger women at work. As she rose up in her career, she said, women began coming to her to talk about problems they were having with men at work. She would “make sure that they had a path forward,” sometimes even going to the boss on their behalf to report the issue. “I always was an advocate for them,” she said.

Other women over 35 described teaching their daughters that harassment was not something they had to accept. One woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said her teenage daughter had been harassed a few years ago at a summer job. “Her dad and I advocated for her,” the woman said, and helped their daughter report the harassment. “I’m teaching my daughter what I wasn’t taught,” she said.

Younger women can be a source of inspiration for older women — and #MeToo can be a source of hope

While older women described mentoring and advising younger women, several said they were inspired by younger generations as well. De la Torre spoke of “young kids coming forward” to confront their abusers, “standing there in tears and saying, ‘You hurt me.’” She likened young people advocating for the #MeToo movement to those fighting against gun violence. “Our children are teaching us to be strong,” she said.

De la Torre believes that #MeToo will help future generations feel comfortable reporting harassment. “I really believe that kids are going to feel more empowered and not be fearful,” she said.

Some media coverage has suggested that older women are more skeptical than younger women when it comes to the #MeToo movement. Our survey did not find evidence of this. In fact, we found that older women were even more optimistic than younger ones about the possible effects of the movement.

Chart comparing older and younger women’s attitudes about potential positive outcomes of the #MeToo movement Javier Zarracina/Vox

And among older women in our focus groups, optimism was a common theme. Blandburg said her first reaction to the #MeToo movement was, “At last.” Finally, she said, women feel that they “will be believed, that they’re not going to be dismissed.”

Mahaffey described the #MeToo movement as “an awakening of society to the level of sexual harassment of women in every facet of life.”

“It’s empowering for my daughters and granddaughters to know that they’ll be heard,” she said, “and that they can stand up and do something without fear of retaliation.”


Top photo illustration: Christina Animashaun/Vox; Getty Images

Portrait photo illustrations: Christina Animashaun/Vox; Amelia Krales/The Verge


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