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Financial vulnerability keeps many women quiet

By MICHELLE SINGLETARY

A lot of folks are questioning why, after so many years or even decades, scores of women have finally come forward to report sexual harassment.

There are many factors that keep a woman quiet. But chief among them is money. They fear losing their ability to make a living. And we shouldn’t judge them for this decision.

It’s easy to say, when you aren’t faced with this type of situation, “I would tell.” Or, “I would fight back.”

But what if fighting back meant a loss of income you desperately needed? What if it meant derailing a career in a field where it is already hard to succeed?

Like many of you, I was stunned at the news that NBC’s “Today” show co-host Matt Lauer was accused of sexual misconduct and then fired. The recent wave of accusations may seem overwhelmingly unbelievable. And yet, it’s about time an enormous light is being shone on this issue. The fact that many high-profile men are losing their jobs is justice for behavior that has gone unchecked and unpunished for far too long.

For many women, to work is to put up with stuff, because you know that standing in the path of your paycheck might be a male manager or influential co-worker willing to take advantage of his position. They can make you feel so financially vulnerable that you just keep quiet.

Like so many others who have finally spoken their truth, I too was harassed. He was a much older male co-worker. Not at The Washington Post but at my hometown newspaper -- my first job in the business. At the time, I thought of the situation as more of a nuisance, something I just had to deal with. I was in my mid-20s. And although it’s been decades since I worked at that paper, the episode still feels fresh.

It never occurred to me to complain. Instead, I joined several other women in devising a way to avoid the perpetrator, who repeatedly tried to get us to go out with him.

When any of us spotted him heading into the newsroom, we would message each other and say, “Here he comes. Get on the phone!”

We would pretend to be conducting an interview so that he would bypass our desks. Most of the time, it worked. Other times, he would just lurk nearby, waiting for our pretend call to end.

Repeated refusals of his romantic overtures led to even more attempts -- even an unnerving love letter. All unwanted advances. The hairs on my arm would literally stand up when I spotted him heading my way.

So why didn’t I tell?

Because I didn’t want it to become a big thing. To cope, I minimized the harassment. I told myself the guy was harmless. He never touched me inappropriately. He never threatened my job.

I’ll be honest. Management probably would have addressed the issue and stopped him from coming around. In those days, I doubt he would have been fired.

But I didn’t tell because I was nervous about possibly derailing my career. I didn’t want to be denied opportunities by being labeled “too sensitive.”

I didn’t want male editors worried I would misinterpret any of their actions. A newsroom back in the day could be very raunchy.

To tell is to become part of the rumor mill. It subjects you to criticism of what you may have done to encourage the abuse or what you didn’t do to discourage it.

I was the first among my siblings to graduate from college. I was the first to be paid the kind of money I made, even as what they used to call a “cub reporter.”

My paycheck helped take care of a disabled brother. It paid for some things my grandmother needed. It assisted my sister, who was trying to recover from a financially devastating divorce.

As I talked with a friend about our early days in the newsroom, she reminded me of so many other instances of inappropriate behavior toward us and other female journalists.

“What about the news photographer who kept taking pictures of us during reporting assignments?” she recalled. “He’s probably got those photos in his basement.”

We both shrieked with revulsion at the thought.

I had pushed those memories deep down. Funny how we compartmentalize such things, she said. We just dealt with the creepy men by doing what we could to make ourselves less vulnerable, like coming up with the phone warning signal.

But with each new sexual harassment revelation, I hope we get closer to a time when women won’t fear that they have to stay quiet, when they won’t have to choose between their paycheck and putting up with predatory behavior.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.