Women face new form of work harassment

We know many women still face on-the-job harassment in male-dominated fields, such as firefighting.
We know many women still face on-the-job harassment in male-dominated fields, such as firefighting. Getty Images

The trolls were horrid to her while she was alive. And they continued to be awful after her death.

Fairfax County firefighter Nicole Mittendorff, 31, killed herself in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park, the state medical examiner concluded. Even after her body was identified, cyberbullies – who said they were her fellow firefighters – kept scorching away at Mittendorff online.

If these trolls are members of her firehouse family, then Mittendorff becomes another example of a new form of workplace harassment. Instead of happening in the office, it happens publicly online.

There is an investigation at Mittendorff's firehouse to find out who posted the online attacks and whether they played a role in her suicide.

Mittendorff's case offers a chilling window into the persistent harassment women encounter online and at work. In fact, those two forms of ugliness appear to merging.

We've seen this trend in public-facing women who get slimed and slammed on social media and by online commenters all the time.

The women of WGN, a Chicago television station, recently took on their abusers when they read some of the nastiest emails, tweets and Facebook posts.

And we've seen it in Gamergate. That scandal started with feminist video-game reviewer Anita Sarkeesian, who had to cancel a university speaking engagement two years ago because one of her online harassers threatened a mass shooting if she spoke. And recently it included Zoe Quinn, a video-game developer who was smeared online with death threats and lurid details about her sex life by other gamers and an ex-boyfriend who didn't like her game. From A to Z, they get hazed.

I am on the receiving end of the onslaught daily.

Here's one I got when I wrote of a neighborhood bone marrow drive and Planned Parenthood:

"Hey Petula, you [profanity] ugly [profanity]," he wrote in a Facebook message. "Too bad your mother did not have an abortion."

I Googled him. He's an older income tax specialist living on Long Island who likes to post inspirational quotes and pictures of himself on Facebook.

He's not a co-worker, just a foul-mouthed jerk.

This brand of workplace harassment operates outside of those surveys, workshops and seminars company lawyers make everyone take, which only exist to thwart lawsuits in case a caveman boss demands sex for a promotion.

Even ifMittendorff’s attackers didn't work with her, those posts were up there to shame her for her career choice and belittle her within her career.

This subversive yet very public sexual harassment is becoming increasingly common. A Pew Research Center survey in 2014 found that 1 in 4 young women has been stalked online – and about as many have been sexually harassed or physically threatened.

We know women still face on-the-job harassment in male-dominated fields.

It’s especially prevalent in firefighting, where I found case after case of women winning sexual harassment cases against their departments in just the past couple of years.

Everywhere, we hear the same story. Women continue to be harassed, belittled, passed over and manipulated by their male co-workers or bosses.

Those happened at work.

What happens online?

Too often, women get told to "ignore those guys, they're losers anyhow" or "it's online, what do you care?" or to "shake it off."

Nope. It matters, it hurts, it means something. And it has to stop.

I'd say, "Ask Nicole Mittendorff how this feels." But we can't.

Twitter: @petulad.