#MeToo in the Travel Industry
© Copyright 2018 by Katherine Vallera
Originally published by TravelPulse
I walked into an elevator at 8:45 am. There were already two large men with menacingly large builds inside. I turned to face the doors as they closed.
“You have nice hair,” commented one standing behind me.
“Thanks,” I replied politely, my eyes fixed on the doors so as not to invite further conversation.
“I envy the guy who pulls your hair at night!” he continued as his friend responded with nervous laughter. “You like it when you get your hair pulled, don’t you? You like it nasty, don’t you!”
Had this happened in another elevator, I’d have pressed a button to exit at the next possible floor. However, this elevator was programmed using a destination control system.
There were no buttons inside the car. I was powerless.
“Look at her, she likes it!” the man continued as my skin flushed with indignation. “She’s turning red!”
“That’s rude, please stop” I asserted. “Very inappropriate.”
They stopped laughing.
“Are you here for business?” asked the instigator, perhaps noting I was dressed in professional attire.
“Yes,” I stated firmly. “As a matter of fact, I am.”
I wanted to believe this would earn their respect, maybe even an apology. There was a brief pause before the man interjected,
“Business by day, hair pulling by night!” he went on. “Dirty girl, you know you like it!”
The elevator doors finally opened. I maintained my composure as I quickly speed-walked down the hallway, but to my horror, the men exited the elevator behind me. Thanks to the destination control system, we were taken to the same floor. I fumbled with my door key and rushed inside, making note of which room the men turned to enter.
I don’t know anyone who’d put sexual harassment at the top of their to-do list for attending a conference. Yet, approximately one out of every three women experience sexual harassment in the workplace according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The conference I attended happened to coincide with the breaking allegations about Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein, igniting a conversation about sexual misconduct that spans countless industries.
“Almost every weekend,” says Brittany, a musician, “I experience some form of sexual harassment.”
“In the entertainment industry, it’s been prevalent,” contends Danielle*, a travel agent, “but it should never be tolerated. In general, women are harassed in several settings [like] walking to work, I get catcalls.”
“The fact that some people turn the other cheek,” says Jamie, a journalist who has written about this subject, “and ignore when their co-workers or friends are experiencing harassment just blows my mind.”
“Everyone avoided it like I was lava,” adds Alethea, a screenwriter who describes her disappointment in the lack of support after experiencing sexual violence. “Too many women ignore the issue if they’re not the ones being harassed.”
Sexual harassment is an especially pertinent subject for the travel industry, where 72% of agents are female. It’s not uncommon for women in tourism to travel alone on business.
“I’m traveling now and encounter issues daily,” said Nina*, who works for a tourism board. “I’m routinely harassed while having the temerity to travel alone while being female. I’ve been shouted at on the streets several times.”
“My first travel job, my boss was a pig,” recalls Renee, a travel agent. “[He made] comments with a sexual tone and laughed when we got embarrassed. He’d pass some girls real close so he’d rub against them [and] make sexual innuendos. It happened often [and] made me feel uncomfortable.”
“I shouldn’t have to worry if I get my lunch out of the fridge in the workroom that my co-worker should put his hand up my dress!” remarks Melissa, a travel journalist. “The worst is lewd sayings, disrespectful with sexual connotations, which is another form of harassment in the workplace.”
“The gross, lingering stares. Things like, ‘hey baby, sexy, gorgeous.’ Anything along those lines: ‘Come over here, get in my car,’” remarks Jessica, a travel agent who experiences harassment daily during her commute to the office. “Whistling or honking, especially when on my bike.”
“It was an incredibly creepy situation,” describes Alexis, a travel agent who felt compelled to order an emergency rideshare after being followed walking to a conference.“I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited to see a Lyft in my life!”
“I just want to walk down the street without having to think about it,” laments Leia*, a tour guide who describes the harassment she experienced while working last weekend.
“Though I’m sure every woman has had encounters with sexual harassment to varying degrees, I do think some women are more targeted for whatever reason,” says Claudia, a photographer and digital content specialist. “It doesn’t help that girls are socialized to be obedient so they’re quiet about it way more often than they should be.”
While I’ve never been known as the poster child of obedience, I would consider myself a woman who is targeted. In fact, the elevator incident is but one of six separate incidents of sexual harassment I experienced the weekend of the conference alone.
The first occurred as I was getting into an Uber to the airport when someone shouted a comment about my backside from the sidewalk. The same day as my elevator incident, I was catcalled on three separate occasions while walking in front of the hotel. Upon my return, I met with a colleague who’d also returned from a conference, only to have our bodies scrutinized by a stranger as we exited the restaurant.
This happens all the time.
“When you’ve been dealing with this kind of stuff since you were a kid,” explains Jamie, “it’s not terribly unexpected, surprising or even creative after a while.”
“A lot of women grew up in households and [a] society where it’s condoned for men to act this way,” actress Shannon observes, “Since women have been conditioned to think that it’s okay, it’s more widely accepted. If a man were whole within himself, he wouldn’t feel the need to belittle or humiliate women. If women loved and respected themselves, they wouldn’t tolerate it.”
Like many women, I refuse to accept catcalling and harassment as a compliment. Frustrating, annoying and distracting describe it. I find it especially vexing when these incidents of misconduct invade and compromise the sanctuary of my professional domain.
“When you feel uncomfortable at work, you cannot concentrate on your job,” say Renee, “because you never know when some creep is going to come on to you.”
“Generally speaking,” Jamie continues, “workplaces that don’t confront misogyny and sexual harassment are not places that foster career advancement for women.”
“It’s one of the clearest indicators we have of the patriarchy at play,” says Katie, a writer, “which exists to hold women back in the workplace and elsewhere.”
“It takes away our ability to be seen as equals and have work be the focus,” comments Alethea, who was fired from a job because she refused to reciprocate her boss’s advances.
I immediately reported the elevator incident to the event staff at the conference. They told me they would have me speak to hotel security. After an hour and no word from security, I emailed the man in charge of the conference to report the incident again. By lunchtime, there was still no word from security, at which point I removed myself from the conference and sought them out myself.
“Are you sure?”
The security guard’s reaction was to question my credibility. I’d given him a physical description of the men and identified their room number. I was prepared to sign some sort of formal complaint, but my request to do so was denied.
“What do you expect me to do?” he responded patronizingly, clearly annoyed by my persistence. “Do you want me to call the police? The police aren’t going to do anything. It’s not like the men actually touched you.”
The guard asked if I wanted to change rooms, but I was scheduled for appointments. I’d flown halfway across the country for professional purposes and didn’t want to miss any more of the conference.
“I’m not the one who should be inconvenienced,” I replied, refusing to be punished.
“I can’t just approach them with something like this,” the security guard replied when I suggested he reprimand the men for their behavior. “It’s a pretty serious accusation.”
Of course it was a serious accusation! That’s exactly why I’d reported it in the first place.
“The responsibility is transferred to us,” Claudia remarks. “It’s so deeply ingrained.”
“Calling people out is good, [but] most people do see it as an overreaction,” says Leia.
“The reaction to these stories is always a mix of, ‘that’s terrible, but what did you expect?'” comments Nina.
The security guard assured me he would address my complaint, which I venture to believe should have involved changing the men’s room if not ejecting them from the hotel entirely. Yet that evening, I returned to my room and recognized the sound of their laughter down the hallway.
“A lot of companies have zero tolerance policies for harassment,” says Jamie, “but without accountability, they mean nothing.”
“When we speak out,” says Alethea, “action should be taken. We need a system of punishment in place; ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t even cut it. Justice means everything.”
“Sexual harassment should be taken more seriously and empathized with,” says Shannon.
“Develop empathy in men for the consequences of their actions,” adds Molly, who works in media marketing.
As I wrote my narrative, more than twenty women of different ages and backgrounds spoke with me about their experiences—all shared similar observations and stories.
Sharon*, for example, works for a tourism board and describes the “paralyzing” sexual harassment she’s received from a government client. She describes feeling pressured into silence and the desire to speak out. Yet, Sharon fears that doing so would destroy the company’s professional relationship with the client as well as her career.
“The stakes are high for all of us in the workplace,” says Katie, who was shocked into submission when her supervisor instructed her to be a ‘pretty face’ at a conference.
“I worry how saying anything might hurt my career or people’s perspectives of me,” explains Leia before going on to describe the silence as tiring.
“I’ve seen a lot of women essentially bullied out of jobs because they can’t take the toxicity,” adds Jamie. “Or they aren’t taken seriously when they speak up.”
“I’m still subconsciously thinking, ‘I don’t want to be dramatic or a liability,’” says Claudia. “It also opens a can of worms that I’m not sure I have the mental and emotional energy to deal with.”
“I was uncomfortable and outraged inside that he even had the audacity,” explains Charisse, who received an unwelcome solicitation from a client. “I still tried to keep things polite and professional. I have no problem speaking my mind, but my calculations said it was more hassle, drama and stress than it was worth to say anything.”
“It’s sometimes better professionally to brush it off and move forward,” says Melissa, “because in most circumstance, what do you do? Sue them?”
“I think one of the most pervasive problems is that women are conditioned to ‘be nice’,” comments Nina. “When confronted with someone who could physically overwhelm you, the way to protect yourself was to be pliant and non-confrontational. This is damaging in travel and in the workplace because as long as we ‘play nice’, we will get treated condescendingly.”
The next morning, I shared my frustration with other travel agents at breakfast. This inspired a colleague to reveal she’d had an equally disturbing experience the same day: It was at lunchtime when she found herself trapped in an elevator with a different man who behaved inappropriately. We decided that there was power in numbers and figured we’d get more headway if we reported the incidents to the hotel’s manager together.
Luckily, the manager on duty was female, and she took us seriously! She expressed displeasure that my incident hadn’t been logged by security and assured me that, had she been on duty, the perpetrators would have been removed from the hotel.
“This is why I actually like the travel industry,” says Danielle. “It’s dominated by women.”
“[We need] women genuinely coming together and supporting each other,” says Jenna*, a travel journalist.
“Even though it isn’t a physical strength that can overpower a man,” comments Shannon, “there is an emotional strength that women will always have and that will always be stronger.”
“Girls need to know that they can fight back!” Heather proclaims.
That afternoon, I received a call from security looking to send a fruit plate in apology. While I appreciated the gesture, the problem wasn’t going to be fixed with an assortment of sliced melons and berries. You can’t use a cantaloupe to fill a gaping hole in society. Their response was exemplary of a systematic failure based on the principle that by ignoring sexual violence, it’ll cease to exist.
The same weekend that my story transpired, millions of women took to social media to challenge precisely this principle with the #metoo campaign.
“It has allowed women to stand strong together,” says Melissa, “and share their stories.”
“[It] is bringing women’s voices to the surface in a powerful way,” says Brittany.
“Speaking out is so important,” says Alethea, “It doesn’t make you weak, it makes you stronger. It makes other women realize they’re not alone.”
“The #metoo campaign shocked me into realizing just how many women have had traumatic experiences when they tried to speak up,” says Molly, “We need this kind of vulnerability if we’re going to combat violence against ourselves.”
“It takes those original brave ones to get things started,” says Jessica. “It’s refreshing to see women with courage talking about uncomfortable experiences so that there can be change.”
“#Metoo made me realize that we’re not alone and made the world see that it happens to us all the time,” says Renee. “I like that we’re sticking together on this issue. I think it’s time we show solidarity.”
“I’m thankful that the social trend lately has shifted more to the real problem,” comments Alexis. “That sexual harassment is caused by the person committing the harassment and not the recipient of the harassment.”
“I feel as though this shift will happen and is happening,” says Shannon. “The fact that we’re having this dialogue right now, the fact that people are actually having these discussions and talking about it on social media; it’s all evidence that there is a paradigm shift.”
A few days later, I followed up with the hotel’s corporate arm. They asked what they could do to make it up to me.
I requested improved training for staff and security personnel. I also urged them to remove the destination control elevators as they pose a serious hazard to personal safety.
Imagine if I hadn’t spoken out about my experience, the other travel agent wouldn’t have spoken out, either. That’s two incidents in one day that we know about.
Meanwhile, 70%-90% of sexual misconduct goes unreported, according to the National Women’s Law Center: “Women are reluctant to make allegations of sexual harassment for a number of reasons, including fear of losing their jobs or otherwise hurting their careers, fear of not being believed, the belief that nothing can or will be done about the harassment and embarrassment or shame at being harassed.”
“Women should speak out about it,” says Becky, a music teacher, “There should be training about sexual harassment in the workplace and how to report it.”
“As women,” says Ashley, “we should not only never tolerate sexual harassment but also never lower ourselves for self-preservation.”
“Women don’t [speak out] more often because they think there’s a larger consequence for not doing what a man wants,” says Shannon. “Once women realize that they’re all just little boys throwing tantrums and trying to take what they want forcefully, then maybe we can allow women to connect with that strength within us.”
If anyone is breaking the rules of society, it’s those who engage in the sexual misconduct. This is clearly misanthropic behavior! That’s why I’m not afraid to put my name to my story, nor am I interested in working with anyone who’d blame me for what transpired.
My story is not an apology, it’s the truth.
“If we want to promote the idea that taking advantage of women in the workplace, harassing them, or making them feel as if they aren’t as capable or valuable as men is not a desirable behavior,” says Molly, “we first need to bring awareness to those behaviors, educating people on why [they] are harmful.”
“Most impact will be seen on an individual level,” says Jamie, “like bosses that take complaints of harassment in their company more seriously and co-workers who stop looking the other way.”
“It lies in education and accountability,” says Jenna, “and not just saying ‘boys will be boys’.”
“It takes more women saying, ‘I expect to be treated with the same dignity and respect as men,’” says Nina, “and it certainly takes women and men to acknowledge that this happens more than we care to admit, to pledge that we won’t sit quietly and allow it.”
The corporate representative I spoke with didn’t sound too keen on my insistence they reevaluate their elevator system. Like so many who aren’t personally affected by sexual misconduct, he seemed oblivious as to how something so simple could pose such a hazard to personal safety.
It must be easy to turn a blind eye when you don’t know how it feels to be unable to walk down the street without looking over your shoulder. I think he would have preferred if I’d requested some comps, but I wanted him to acknowledge that it’s going to take more than a fruit plate to fix this!
“It’s important for sexual harassment to be taken seriously because it is often just the tip of the iceberg,” says Alethea, “So many other issues are hidden in those who can speak so crassly. It’s seeing someone who’s buzzed headed for their car keys: Do you say something about how they shouldn’t be driving or do you wait until they crash the car and kill someone?”
“On a bus where everyone could hear that I was clearly being assaulted, no one did anything,” Nina describes an experience on a business trip where sexual harassment escalated to assault. “It became clear to me that harassers don’t act alone. They believe [they’re] entitled to women and society largely enforces it.”
“It’s part of your responsibility as a member of society,” says Jamie, “to do something when others are in need of help or support.”
This reminds me of the second passenger in the elevator who laughed along while his friend harassed me. I hold him equally accountable for the misconduct that transgressed because he was willing to serve as a spectator.
“You are just as guilty if you don’t say anything,” says Becky, who is one of many women to mention the Homeland Security catchphrase: If you see something, say something.
“Society needs to understand that real action is required in the physical world,” says Rose*, a scuba instructor.
After the conference, I engaged in a #metoo discussion with my cousin, a driving instructor. He told me he was in the car with a student who wanted to roll down the window and catcall a woman. He responded to the student with, ‘that’s not cool’, without realizing the gravity of his intervention.
Imagine how differently the elevator scene would have played out if the second passenger had similarly interjected, ‘that’s not cool’?
“I think men need to be a part of this movement,” explains Jessica. “Telling their friends that what they’re doing is wrong, calling them out, being the better man. I know it’s not easy. Usually, when sexual harassment is happening, it’s awkward and embarrassing. So people might not want to intervene, but the right thing to do would be stand up if you’re witnessing it.”
“There are good men we can trust,” Shannon contends.
“The #metoo campaign made a lot of women and men face something they were avoiding,” says Alethea. “The men who spoke out, realizing how many of their friends and family had been impacted by harassment: It was amazing to see some of those responses, to know where the good guys are and to see women face that fear and own it.”
“I don’t necessarily think that men have an obligation as much as humans have an obligation,” says Shannon. “Change starts with women not being okay with how they’re treated and finishes with men executing that request because they listen and understand. Together, we can bring balance to each other.”
“Take the emphasis away from gender,” says Rose, “and concentrate on building a kinder society [with] people who support each other.”
“It’s the same thing that’s going to change racism and prejudice,” Shannon continues.
“Humans need the chance for release and redemption.” says Molly. “Working together as a species, we want to create interactions that build each other up.”
“It’s going to take some time for us to change the collective consciousness on this topic,” Shannon surmises. “Time and discussion, honest discussion. Fortunately for us, we’re having this discussion; a lot of people are having this discussion all over.”
“One day,” hopes Jessica, “we [will] walk down the street and not be shouted at like we’re just here for enjoyment.”
Note: More than half of the women I interviewed requested to remain anonymous (indicated by asterisks) due to the possibility of reprisal or harassment.