Editor’s Note: The author of this article is being kept anonymous at her request to protect her personal safety and comfort.
Last spring, I opened my inbox to see the email I had been waiting for all semester offering me a summer internship. During all the mock interviews I participated in and resume workshops I attended, no one warned me of the sexual harassment many interns experience. Maybe my professors and mentors assumed I knew that sexual harassment is disturbingly common in the workplace and young, eager-to-please interns are prime targets. Maybe they didn’t realize I learned about Monica Lewinsky from “Saturday Night Live” jokes. Maybe as a society, we are still uncomfortable talking about workforce harassment and assault. No matter the reasoning, I was blindsided when one of my summer superiors closed the door to his office and told me I was beautiful. 2,000 miles from home and barely 18, I was isolated and scared. Fortunately, his advances never went beyond comments and lightly touching my shoulder or lower back. Unfortunately, my boss seemingly ignored my complaints as my harasser retains a position where he continues to interact with young interns.
Internships are incredibly important to student professional development. Studies show participation in internships increases the employability of recent graduates as employers believe those who have completed internships are more likely to possess a competitive skill set. Internships allow students to vet future employers, explore their prospective career fields and connect with industry mentors. As these opportunities shape a student’s future, prospective interns should not have to fear sexual assault or harassment when they accept a position. Sadly, the current reality is that one in five American adults have been sexually harassed at work. 81 percent of women have experienced workplace sexual harassment and minority groups are more likely to be harassed. In addition to interpersonal skills and building a stellar resume, understanding a company’s culture, being cognizant of isolation tactics utilized by sexual predators and knowing how to report sexual harassment and assault are critical for potential interns.
An interview commonly ends with one final query from the interviewer, “Do you have any questions for me?” providing candidates an opportunity to ask about company sexual harassment and assault policies. Asking a question about a sensitive subject is not mainstream, often making it uncomfortable to ask and to answer. Regardless, these questions are important as they allow potential hires insight into company culture prior to accepting a position and furthers the conversation of sexual assault accountability beyond Weinstein into everyday industries. These questions are especially important for unpaid internship applicants as they are not afforded the same legal rights as paid employees. Another effective precaution against workplace sexual harassment is researching a company history with sexual assault allegations. If a company has a notorious culture of sexual harassment and abuse, it is likely that this is an unsafe work environment.
When I arrived at my summer internship last May, my harasser, to paraphrase, “took me under his wing because I had something special.” He demanded my cell phone number so he could reach me after hours. When I hesitated, he asked if I “actually took this opportunity seriously.” When we worked together he would often share confidential information because he “knew I could keep a secret.” In hindsight, his tactics were obvious and of a textbook sexual predator. He utilized his position to gain my trust, isolated me from the other interns and created a culture of secret-keeping. While I saw him as a mentor, he saw me as a target. Fortunately, textbook grooming tactics can be prevented. When possible, avoid one-on-one contact, private or personal conversations and staying late in the office alone. Talk to those around you, many of your colleagues will make you aware of the office pervert. Document interactions that make you uncomfortable even if you do not believe it “counts” as sexual harassment. Being cognizant of potential sexual predators does not make you paranoid and should not limit your ability to connect with your co-workers.
If you are sexually harassed by a superior or a colleague, document and report it. More companies are including sexual harassment training in their onboarding process aimed at arming interns with company protocols for addressing sexual harassment and assault within the organization. However, if you do not receive official training, ask for the contact information of your Human Resource representative from superiors or colleagues. If you fear that reporting harassment or assault may lead to professional or academic retaliation, contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as an employee’s right to “resist sexual advances” is federally protected.
Since that moment behind my harasser’s closed office door, I have spent an ungodly amount of time trying to figure out how I could have avoided the situation, and I have realized a few things. First, he is the sole-responsible party for the harassment. He took advantage of his position and my position. Also, this experience will not define my future work experiences. Instead, this experience has informed me as to what values I prioritize in an employer. I feel safe at my current summer internship, the environment is respectful and I believe action would be taken against sexual harassment. Lastly, it is imperative to seriously talk about workplace sexual harassment and assault with students. It is an uncomfortable topic as the issue is so prevalent in our work culture, but candid conversations about harassment and assault inform potential targets and can prevent predatory behavior.