career

"I was 18 when I came home and told my mum I was being sexually harassed at work."

Tonight, the ABC will air a three-part documentary series tackling sexual harassment in the workplace.

Among many other brave and formidable women, one of the people featured in the documentary is me.

Except, ironically, you can’t actually know what happened to me. What precisely was done to me, which led me to being on your TV screens. You also can’t know how my employers handled the situation. You can’t know what happened to that perpetrator.

Despite the name of the documentary, Silent No More, I, for a large part, am legally silenced.

This is absolutely through no fault of the incredible documentary makers, who fought so hard for the inclusion of my story. Rather, the non-disclosure agreement (NDA) I signed when I resigned from the workplace after experiencing ongoing sexual harassment from this one employee.

“I had become terrified and physically sick with fear at work.”

I suppose one of the questions on your mind must be what compelled me to sign an NDA. I had just turned 18 when the perpetrator walked into my life. I was also 18 when I resigned and the settlement, including the NDA, was processed.

Now 21, I don’t think I’m far enough away from the experience to truly understand how my age impacted the situation. However, I am certain that when you’re 18 and your employers, colleagues and perpetrator aren’t, the imbalance of power between all parties is only tipped further.

At no age is it easy to stare down the barrel of a sexual harassment case, but when you’re 18 years old and receiving letters from lawyers, my mind said to get out. Fast.

When I first told my mum what this man was doing to me at work, I just wanted to resign. I didn’t want to report. I just so desperately wanted to get out. I had become terrified and physically sick with fear at work, that I wanted the fastest one-way route out of that place: resignation.

With some convincing from my mum and a lawyer, we started some very simple proceedings. Opening up conversations with the employer about my options. To be transparent, I could have escalated my claim to the state’s Workplace Health and Safety regulator or taken it to court. It was explained that both of those could be quite long and rigorous processes to endure.

And, like many people who don’t report allegations of violence, they were simply processes I could not endure. Few people warned me the process of reporting, which I can’t talk about, would incur a different type of trauma to the harassment itself. I still had uni to go to the next day, work in my other jobs, and also be an 18-year-old who didn’t run home fuelled by bottled panic from the train station.

So, that’s how we came to me resigning and settling. Settlement involves a whole bunch of things and agreements, which you can’t know about, but the biggest part of the settlement is the NDA inclusion.

I balanced what the settlement gave me; my safety, against what it took away from me; my ability to explain what had been done to me, and I chose my safety.

Despite the way it tears at my heart that people can’t know about my experiences, I would choose my safety again. Because, unfortunately, we still do live in a cruel structure that makes many of us choose.

Safety.

Or, your voice.

After it was all over, I went on holiday, to escape. Image: Supplied.
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There has been a deep shame I have internalised over the past three years about my choice to keep quiet. All my life I genuinely believed that when I was faced with a situation of injustice, I would raise my voice. Yet, when it happened, I had to live with myself when I didn’t. Not loud enough.

The story I was telling myself was that, deep down, I was weak. That I wasn’t brave enough to stand up for myself. That I needed another woman to experience this and be strong enough to do it for me. That I wasn’t who I thought I could be after all.

I have rationalised all of this. I did what I could. I made a choice in a system that forces you to choose between really difficult and soul-sucking realities.

That’s the part I most want you to recognise about my story. When someone is sexually harassed at work, they are forced through a series of decisions to escape, live with, and heal from the trauma.

To resign or stay.

To report or stay quiet.

To report once, be ignored, and keep on reporting.

To escalate beyond their company or keep internal.

To involve the government or the courts.

To sign or not be silent.

All of these decisions when they’re facing some of the most traumatic experiences of their life. Whatever they choose will be the result of so many contending factors like their financial stability, support network, company response, threat of the perpetrator, and mental and physical health.

As we salute the inspiring women whose faces and names we know for leading the fight against harassment in the workplace, let’s recognise the women whose names you don’t know because somewhere in this structure they’ve been silenced.

Three-part series Silent No More airs on ABC and iView on Mondays at 8:30 p.m. from 25 November.

If you have experienced sexual harassment or assault and need to speak to someone, support is available via 1800 RESPECT. Please call 1800 737 732.

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