“... So I tolerated it.”
That’s too frequently what women say when they are groped, slapped, probed, raped, assaulted, insulted and harassed at work.
Especially when the work is deemed macho, like firefighting, policing or patrolling. In these hypermasculine professions more than others, women are expected to be tough, to tolerate, to ignore and endure.
“I put up with it. I brushed it off,” said Jennifer Glover, 33, a super strong National Rifle Association member, master shooter, weightlifter and self-described “tough chick” who was harassed and then roughly sexually assaulted while doing her dream job guarding one of the nation’s most sensitive nuclear test sites.
Her response is familiar.
“... I didn’t quit, I decided to stay,” said Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) last month, after America’s first female commander of a U.S. Air Force squadron revealed that she was raped while serving in the military.
And then there’s Nicole Mittendorff, 31, who tolerated, put up with and brushed off the vile, online abuse by some of her colleagues at the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. All the way to her grave.
Three years ago this month, Mittendorff killed herself. An official report didn’t link her suicide to the harassment directly, but those close to Mittendorff believed it contributed to the final act.
For Glover, it started with lewd comments, headless, naked photos her co-workers said were her (they weren’t) and the men she was on Humvee patrol and top-secret, Q-level training exercises with regularly showing their genitalia to her. At least one of her superiors texted her in the middle of the night with lewd propositions.
“Some [other women] I’ve been talking to experienced the same things, one was willing to tell her story, some talked to me in confidence because they’re too scared to talk about it. One cleaned her locker out because she just had enough,” she said.
The years of verbal abuse escalated to physical and sexual abuse one November night in 2017, during a training exercise when her male colleagues handcuffed Glover, hit her in the mouth with a rifle butt and groped her breasts, groin and buttocks.
Glover reported the assault to the government contractor that hired her, the Centerra Group. A year later, after months of back-and-forth about the incident, she was terminated by SOC, the contractor that took over for Centerra. She was accused of scheduling infractions, taking photos of a company document and using profanity, charges she denies. Glover filed a case against Centerra in federal court, alleging that her firing was retaliation for her whistleblowing.
The folks at Centerra said they will fight Glover in court.
“Centerra appropriately responded to and thoroughly investigated the claims Ms. Glover brought to its attention in January 2018,” said Suzanne Piner, head of communications and marketing for Centerra. “The Company ceased operating at the Nevada National Security Site in February 2018, and accordingly, the Company is not responsible for, nor able to comment on, the conduct that may have occurred after SOC LLC assumed operations, including SOC’s subsequent termination of Ms. Glover.”
Glover has been unemployed since the firing in November and wants to be working again. She doesn’t want to talk about it anymore. But as she was about to get on a plane in Nevada to come to Washington where she would be telling her story on Capitol Hill, she said it’s important.
“I want my voice heard so other women don’t have to go through this,” she said.
“... So I Tolerated It” isn’t just a mantra. Staffers from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee who studied workplace harassment and the retaliation that follows anyone who reports it heard that phrase so much, they used it as the title of their final report.
And that report — which showed a continued and pervasive pattern of harassment in the United States — is the basis for legislation that aims to make it tougher for employers to tolerate this behavior, said the ranking Democrat of the committee, Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.).
“We’ve seen so many people bravely come forward and make clear that sexual assault and harassment in the workplace just has to stop — and I wanted to make sure that Congress paid attention not just to the stories from Hollywood or here in the nation’s capital, but to all workers, especially in industries like manufacturing and food service where these threats are especially high,” Murray said in a statement when the report came out in December. “It’s inspiring to see that, as the report shows, workers are having an impact by speaking up. It’s also clear there is a real need for stronger protections and preventative measures.”
Glover was on Capitol Hill earlier this month with Murray to help introduce the Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination (BE HEARD) in the Workplace Act. It will help ensure businesses have more resources to prevent harassment and workers have more support when they seek accountability and justice, according to the National Women’s Law Center, which has been working with the committee.
In Fairfax County, where Mittendorff worked, there has been an effort to make change.
Mittendorff’s husband, Steve, asked for the resignation of the fire chief and serious restructuring in the department after her death.
Three years later, the department is still struggling with that change.
In a statement, Fairfax County Executive Bryan J. Hill said the fire and rescue department is improving and seeing results “thanks to new leadership — leadership that is dedicated to providing a safe, productive, respectful and inclusive work environment for all of our employees. We do not condone sexual harassment, bullying and retaliation and investigate all complaints.”
A well-known captain was recently demoted after he allegedly assaulted a female recruit nearly two years ago.
That recruit didn’t report the incident to her bosses when it happened, WUSA’s Peggy Fox first reported. The incident came to the department’s attention a year later, when she told a captain and he reported it, leading to an investigation by the Fairfax County Office of Human Rights and Equity Programs (OHREP).
Privately, folks close to the investigation said they were frustrated this was a demotion and not a firing.
That recruit is now a firefighter, and she’ll have to see the alleged attacker at work. And that, advocates say, is why so much of this stuff is kept quiet.
It keeps happening simply because we let it, said Glover’s attorney, Jay Ellwanger.
“The repercussions for an employer are so limited,” Ellwanger said. “They don’t really strike fear in the hearts of the average employer. Until men started fearing for their livelihoods the way women do, and have done, we won’t see change.”