WHEN LIFE

GIVES YOU

 

1.1 Design Question

How could I make a change about harassment as a person and as a designer?

 

I would need to find out the problems around harassment and identify the biggest one. Decide if I want to focus on the it or another that doesn’t get enough attention. This information and my feelings on it would be translated into graphics, but how? The design should help other people and I needed to figure out how and what my project should be in order to meet these criteria.

1.2 Research Question

But then, in order to answer the design question, I needed to also ask the question with which I would start my research:

 

How could I understand what harassment is and make a statement?

 

I knew how I defined harassment, but how did other people? What did they think is the worse thing about it? Maybe their opinions will reshape my own. If that’s the case, what would be my statement and how could I use it in order to help?

The main problem about harassment, I thought, is the fact that it can occur in a lot of different ways and contexts. It depends on what somebody considers or not harassment. I have been generally relating this filter to that person’s perception of themselves or normality. This made it hard to define, hard to prevent or control harassment in most contexts. Solving harassment was mostly a collective job for parents everywhere to define their children’s conception of normality and for each of us to reflect on our behavior and take other people into consideration.

 

Apart from the differences between individuals, harassment was also a culturally rooted concept. Most countries had, more or less, a male-dominated society. By talking to people from different countries during my research process, I learned that in some cultures patriarchy is more prominent than others. For example, the Netherlands had a male-dominated society, but harassment was far from being so embedded in the culture as it was in Middle Eastern countries, for instance.

 

There was harassment everywhere, of course, but the frequency and gravity of its occurrence differed from place to place.

2.1 Harassment in the Workplace

While harassment in the public space was for me an equally important matter and maybe even larger than harassment in the workplace, I could think of no way anyone could control that kind of situation. Before, or after. We couldn't know the people that could harass us and if someone did harass us, it was highly unlikely we would ever see them again. We were left with a bunch of feelings and no way of confronting the person who wronged us.

 

As I needed something that already had a system of regulations put in place that I could work with, I decided to research harassment in the workplace further.

 

In the more rigid context of the workplace, it would be easier to point out harassment and prohibit it. Human Resources departments and managers could thus contribute to pointing out harassment and defining it as an undesirable attitude. Of course, firing a harasser doesn’t mean he will stop being one. He might as well find a place where he could keep his ways and remain unscathed. Nevertheless, it would be a small but important step to shape the collective opinion on the matter and just maybe help us evolve into more considerate people.

 

 

Harassment at work could take a lot more forms.

Bullying, of course, should also be considered harassment. Jokes or comments do not need a sexual connotation or undertone to cause harm. There could be no words at all. I also thought that harassment can also be when somebody is deliberately ignoring one of their coworkers, especially when communication is important to their relationship and, thus, to their jobs. The harasser can be one person as well as a group of people manifesting the same behavior.

Heinz Leymann introduces the term of mobbing in his article The content and development of mobbing at work (1996) and describes it as

The words “helplessness” and “defenseless” stood out when I read this. I thought those words might be used more often to describe women than men.

2.2 Workplace Harassment and Gender Inequality

I was aware that both women and men were harassed, by both women and men. However, I thought it is generally easier to harass women and therefore, a more common practice. It may be because they are seen as weaker or less prepared. This, however, was also subject to culture.  While there were women who might not have faced this bias, there were still a lot who did. My first thought to support this theory was the concept of ‘traditional family' as dictated by the society and the amount in which it is dominated by men: where the man works and the woman takes care of the house and children. It is a limited and stale perception, in my opinion. This does not mean that this concept is dead just yet in our current society.

"Although progress has been made, in many ways and in many places, males are still more valued than females and enjoy a higher social standing. Job prestige is one example of women’s lower status. [...] According to the UN, although well-educated women have advanced and the share of women managers is increasing, most women remain in low-status, less-valued jobs and face greater barriers to higher-level positions”.

“Women continue to face discrimination in

access to work, economic assets and

participation in private and public decision-making. Women are also more likely to live in poverty than men. […] Women remain at a disadvantage in the labour market. Globally, about three-quarters of working-age men participate in the labour force, compared to only half of working-age women. Women earn 24 percent less than men globally. In 85 percent of the 92 countries with data on unemployment rates by level of education for the years 2012–2013, women with advanced education have higher rates of unemployment than men with similar levels of education. Despite continuous progress, today the world still has far to go towards equal gender representation in private and public decision-making.”

After reading on the topic of women in the workplace context, I strongly believe gender inequality and harassment go hand in hand. It is easier to harass women because they are perceived as weak and poorly prepared to work - regardless their education – less fitting than men as prospective employees. Therefore, even when they do get employed, they still risk being considered “less than”, sometimes even by their female superiors.

2.3 Goal

Based previous experiences and conversations, my premise was that harassment is all about power dynamics. More often than not, the victims was “smaller” than the harasser. This meant the harasser was either superior in the workplace, of a better social status or male (also sometimes defined as the stronger sex). My first thought is that I should give power back to the victims. I asked myself how I could do that. As a designer, what could I make that would be a strong and inspiring symbol of empowerment? But wait, if it is indeed about power dynamics, doesn’t it mean that whomever has the power will be the harasser? The characteristics of victims and abusers are fluid. Then how can I help? I REALLY want to and I thought it would be enough.

 

I have been harassed in the workplace myself. I have experienced harassment on the street as well. I told myself it’s the price to pay as a woman and that I had to deal with it and move forward. I knew how it felt, I had a vague idea that it was happening to a lot of women, but I didn’t give much thought to it. I didn’t have an objective point of view: How is harassment defined? What is the law? What are the effects? Until now.

Now I want to make up for the time that I kept my mouth shut and told myself that it is what it is and will keep being the same from now on as well.

2.4 Research Blog

As a designer, I aimed to be a problem solver. While I understood I simply couldn’t fix harassment all together and this kind of goal would set me up for failure, I needed to solve something. But in order to fix something, I needed to understand it even better.

So with all these questions and random ideas in my head, I started laying out a research plan. First, I made a research blog. A place where I could collect information and media related to my subject, but also write down the feedback I received and my personal thoughts on the process. Each post was tagged accordingly so I would easily find any information I might be looking for at any time.

I collected more articles and books concerning the definitions of harassment and also articles on the different types of harassment and their effects on people, social media posts, quotes, references. I talked to people about this subject, wrote down all the advice I got for my project, adding my personal notes along the way.

2.5 Questionnaire

When I started writing it, I had in mind the following premises: Most harassers will be men. Most harassers would be superior (in the company hierarchy) to the victims. Harassment is a power game. I ended up being right. As my findings only represent my demographic - mainly women between 20 and 35 - I was aware that the conclusions I drew from this survey were not general truths. From this way of researching, my hypothesis was confirmed. I was happy to be right, but I found myself in a blockage.

 

Now what? I already knew this. How can I use this information?

 

Upon discussing it, I decided to take a look at the more personal questions. What happened? What did they do? If they could go back, what would they do differently? What would they advise other women in the same situation to do?

(1)

(2)

(3)

I focused on words or phrases that would define harassment, as a first step.

(1) What happened? Was it something somebody said? Or did?

 

And then, how did they related to it?

(2) How did it affect them? What were the situations they were left in?

 

I was depending at this point on these findings. I was looking for the more personal approach, the one I could work with as a designer. My goal was to help, so the advice was going to be the answer to the question "How can I help?".

I had, at that point, close to nothing to work with in order to figure out what was it that we needed? Or what was the common need of all these different women?

Lastly (3), I asked what advice would they give to their past selves and other women who found themselves in the same situation? Now, here it became interesting because I was looking for clarification. And I found a mess of contradicting bits of advice. Some were forms of the generic "speak up!". Others were plainly opposite. "You can find other jobs." and "Do not even think to quit your job!", for example.

2.6 The Epiphany

As I was working on the topic of harassment I thought it a good opportunity to analyze myself. I thought about what I was feeling. I was more than angry with this guy and the fact that he thought it’s ok to do that. I could bet he had a good laugh. But I was also angry and frustrated with myself.

my inner voice roared.

I kept walking and tried to convince myself it wasn’t my fault. That’s the first thing about harassment: IT. IS. NOT. THE. VICTIM'S. FAULT. EVER. Turns out I didn't know better myself. My reaction was what it was, nothing could make that whole situation feel better. I came to terms with myself and let myself be taken over by those feelings. I wanted to punch something. Destroy something. Hear something crack the same way I heard something crack in myself when I got scared. And then it came, The Epiphany of my project:

I can’t make harassment better. I can tell victims whatever, they would still feel scared or angry or embarrassed just like I did. I can tell harassers whatever, they will not stop abusing whatever little power they have. I could try and give back the power to the victims, as I have stated at some point, but soon enough their power will make them harassers as well.

 

 

What I could do was give them an outlet. A way to let go of their feelings and have some sort of closure to the abuse.

3.1 Concept

Upon analyzing my own reaction and the fact that what would have really helped me would have been an outlet, my design concept starting forming. I wanted to give women an outlet for their emotions. I wanted to create an environment where they would feel safe enough to let their process their feelings and deal with them in a physical manner.

I wanted to take these words and give them the tools to destroy them - literally and metaphorically. To make something good out of something bad that they were given to deal with.

 

I saw that harassment was similar to a hill. You have to face the hard part and climb it, there's no shortcut. Same as how I thought people should deal with their bad experiences - reflect on them, recall the event, try to find something they learned from it. And finally, at the top of the hill, they could go on with their lives and let the past be the past.

 

I decided to challenge people to deal with their feelings. Give them a tool to reflect on a negative event that might have happened to them, they triggered themselves or witnessed. And then give them something good in return. Something that they could hold on to and have a nice memory with.

3.2 First Ideas

When I first imagined what I would want to do, it was a typographic installation. The initial idea was that I could create an alphabet that would look how the emotions around harassment felt. W, for example, would stand for Wounded. And it be made of patches. This idea has slowly developed into words hanging from the ceiling. Words like Hurt, Disgusted or Anxious.

It felt to me that there needed to be some sort of reward for going through those feelings. I couldn’t decide between something that would feel like a pat on your back (“Congrats, you’ve gone through this and came out more empowered”) or like a wrong reaction (“Mhm, ok, you were harassed? So what? Deal with it.”). It didn’t feel right, however.

I took into consideration my own experience and thought “What if people could cut the strings holding the words?” They would go down with a noise and a sense of liberation.

Of course, handing people scissors telling them to confront someone might turn out bad. I had to think about this more.

3.3 Scenarios

As I continued experimenting, three scenarios formed.

First would be a party set up. It would have balloons and gifts, a cake and snacks and a huge typographical piñata.

 

While the outside would be pretty and perfect, the elements would reveal a second layer when observed closer.

 

The cake would have a hollow inside, filled with harassment stories, candies that taste horribly or words. The snacks would have little flags with bad feelings written on them. Before or after eating, the flags would be thrown away in a trash bin labelled “let go”.

The piñata letters would serve as a physical outlet from the artificial sweetness of the setup. People could destroy them and small rewards or noteswould fall from inside.

 

The wrapping of the gifts would have harassment stories written on them. People would have to rip the paper in order to find a note with a positive thought.

 

It was possible that the place would have a faint source of a disgusting smell, serving as the first indication of the deeper layer.

The second scenario was the wall of gifts. Simply put, balloons of different sizes would be stuck to a wall (as a rectangle, letters or minimalistic illustration). On a stand, there would be a plate of pins. Either stories of harassment or negative feelings would be written on the balloons in different sizes. As I have emphasized before, differences are characteristic when talking about harassment.

My theory was people would pop the balloons that fit their feelings. Inside every balloon, there would be a different gift. A soft cloth for glasses, an encouraging thought, a friendship bracelet, colourful confetti, illustrations or candies are just a few examples.

The popping of the balloons could reveal another image hidden behind them.

The third scenario was more similar to the first idea. Huge words would be hanging or sitting around, for people to destroy. They could be made of plaster, ceramics, paper, tree branches or other rough-textured materials. Either inside the letters or somehow attached to them would be the brighter layer represented as well by tiny gifts.

3.4 Make Lemonade

After taking into consideration the possibilities and the limitations of the space I was assigned, I chose to work further on the second scenario.

I decided to write a negative feeling multiple times on each balloon. Words such as AFRAID, FRUSTRATED, DEPRESSED, ANGRY or ANXIOUS. Inside those balloons, there would be friendship bracelets and a small note.

When sketching this scenario before, I wanted to have different gifts coordinated with the words on the balloons. I realized, however, that the same gift would send a more powerful message: regardless of our uniqueness, if we were harassed we had to deal with it and that was that. In our own terms and pace, we were still not alone in facing this burden. We all deserved to let go of the negativity and have a small reason to smile that we were expecting.

However, to acknowledge and celebrate our differences, the bracelets were made with a lot of different colors and patterns.

Before being rewarded, though, I wanted people to think about feelings surrounding harassment. I chose to use a recording to communicate with people. I would use headphones, to cancel the noise around and be able to focus. I would ask them to reflect on the problems that are caused by harassment and their position in relation to the topic. Did they relate to the position of the victim or the harasser? Did they witness such an event? What was the emotion surrounding their memory? Is it still affecting them?

Ultimately, I would thank them and tell them to pick a needle and pop that bad emotion they were thinking about.

After enough balloons will have been popped, the text

MAKE

LEMONADE

would be revealed. This sentence was the most simplified and still comprehensive explanation of my concept and I thought it should close this project.

My process had confirmed to me a few things that were only suppositions before. Firstly, I found that harassment in the workplace was an issue and not only the projection of my own such experience on other people. I have given before examples of laws defining and punishing harassment in Netherlands and Romania, the two countries I lived in most of my life. While those were as neutral as possible, they acknowledged that harassment is an issue and offered me a foundation to build my concept on. Further, by putting harassment into the context of the workplace, I have found harassment can take a lot of forms. Ståle Einarsen and Heinz Leymann definitions of bullying and mobbing helped me understand that the roles of the harassers and victims are flexible across gender, age, or, in few cases (as the questionnaire proved afterwards), position in the company hierarchy.

 

Secondly, I looked into the role general inequality plays in the dynamics of harassment. I was confirmed by Shawn Meghan

Burn, the Millennium Development Goals 2008 and 2015 that it is, in fact, the case. It was clearer to me harassment was a game of power and women were sometimes considered weaker and less capable than men. As my own research confirmed all of these, I could conclude females were harassed or discriminated in the workplace, perhaps more than men. Based on my research I can back up the latter statement, although I am aware I have mainly discussed with women about the problems they face in the workplace.

 

Thirdly, harassment was an issue that couldn’t be solved altogether, whatever actions might be taken. The number of incidents can be reduced by law, company policy and people defining it as undesirable attitude through their behaviour. Victims can be given help under the forms of therapy, understanding, encouraging and outlets for the emotions caused by their experience with harassment.

As a woman who was one step away from joining the workforce,  researching and designing a project against harassment in the workplace helped me understand the issue better.

 

I expected it to give me the reassurance that if it happened to me I know better what to do out of my feelings than in the past. It has been proven to me by my own experience that even if I had a wider theoretical understanding of harassment, I would be affected by such unpleasant situations and there was no way I could change that. What I could change is how I chose to deal with it and what steps I took towards self-healing after I calmed down.

 

By asking for other women’s stories I understood that I am not alone, even if we all have different experiences, reactions and healing processes. What I discovered we have in common was the fact that we all needed to let it out in one way or another. Thus, I was happy to be able through my work to lend a hand and build a little bit on our collective try to leave the world better than we found it.

 

As a designer, I found the theoretical approach to my research interesting. I was always eager to learn something new. At the same time, whenever I learned something new and the topic interested me, I tried to find out as many angles to the issue as possible. From this point of view, the process of searching for books and articles, reading those, developing my own questions and getting answers for them, talking to people and reflecting on my own experience seemed like a thorough way of learning. As the design process started shortly after the research, I had, at first, been troubled by how I could make them work together. By working more, planning and prototyping different design outcomes, I based my decisions on the things I have learned and came up with my final idea and translated it visually.

 

At times, I thought that working on a cause I cared about could be no real help, but just a way of making myself feel better. There were no immediate changes I could see, as a result of my actions, and that made me fear things don’t and won’t get better. Despite this fear that is always in the back of my mind, I couldn't stop trying.

Through my work, I have always tried to do something good. Sometimes as the purpose of the project (such as the present), others as a collateral effect. If I had to pick the most important thing that I have learned, it was the fact that I could never know enough about matters that are in attention so desperately.

Harassment, as many other similar issues, is a complex matter that can be only understood through personal experience. As it differed across countries and cultures, I was aware that my solution would work better for some and maybe be inefficient to others.

 

Because of this, as a maker, I was left in a position where there were still a lot of problems I cared about and would like to help change. After graduating I planned to work further on social issues, as much as I can. No change could be fueled by one person, but I told myself that by joining other people with similar views, we become a strong voice and a trigger for change. Maybe we won’t feel it, as solving social issues would be a slow process. Women and men who lived long before we have built step after step towards a better future for our society. Despite facing hard times and hopelessness, despite probably also thinking it may be in vain, despite all the people who don’t care or try to wreck things for their own gains, they kept going. As we stand on the steps they have built for us, it is our responsibility to keep it going and build steps for those who will come after us and give them tools to build a better world. I happily accepted this responsibility and will continue to try and live up to it as both Raluca the person and the designer.

© Raluca Florian 2018