When I was a high school graduate, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my future. For a variety of reasons, I initially bypassed college and instead went straight to work.
I landed a mailroom / office assistant job at a distributor for computer peripherals and worked alongside a fantastic group of ladies – Irene, Tina and Bonnie. They taught me how to enter customer orders, prepare shipping documents, and review inventory levels to set up purchase orders with vendors like Printronix, Norand, Welch Allyn, and so on. These women were funny and smart and hardworking; they shared stories about their lives, and schooled me on office dynamics and protocols. They treated me as an equal even though I was truly just a kid.
I loved coming to work and learning the process of business. It seemed like the best thing in the world as an 18-yr old to dress up in nice clothes, go to an office with wonderful people, and earn a living. It felt quite grown up!
Within a few months, our manager expanded my role to include responsibility for the “demo room” … managing and tracking all the demonstration equipment our sales reps would bring to clients for one-time demos or short-term loans.
The demo equipment was housed in a mini-warehouse-like space at the back of the building that you entered through the “mailroom” office cube. Several tall racks of shelving were packed with equipment and supplies. The lighting in the warehouse wasn’t great – maybe just one or two bulbs on a ceiling that was easily 25’ high or more – so I typically left the door open for additional light … even though the racks of equipment blocked it anyhow.
One day, as I was at the back of the demo room taking inventory, the door closed quickly and the lights suddenly went dark. In little more than a gravelly whisper, I heard:
“How about you and I have a little fun in here, huh?”
I can still hear his voice. One of the owners of the business was cornering me in that cold, cement-floored room. I heard him breathing, heard his footsteps closing in, and what sounded like the shirttails being pulled out of his pants.
The fight-or-flight instinct kicked in and I remember thinking, “This is bull-shit!” And so I calmly replied:
“Why don’t we go to your office, call your wife and see if she approves of you putting the moves
on a girl your daughter’s age? Let’s start there and see what happens.”
He hustled straight back to the door and flipped the lights on, telling me – in a nervous, but angry voice – that I needed to learn how to take a joke. I stayed put behind the shelves and never saw his face as he scuttled out the door, but I’ve always wished I had looked him straight in the eye and put the exclamation point on that exchange.
My reaction in that situation will not surprise anyone who knows me, but it sure as heck surprised him. After that incident, I worked there for five years until I went off to college. He never spoke to or acknowledged me in any way that entire time. When we were in a group setting at company events, he completely avoided eye contact and made as quick a getaway as possible. No doubt, he never imagined he’d be afraid of a teenager!
Inexperienced as I was, I had no clue his behavior should have been reported to someone. So I kept it to myself and just went about the business of my job.
Over the years since that experience, I’ve witnessed, received and investigated a myriad of harassment or gender bias incidents that run the gamut. Unfortunately, it’s fairly pervasive.
The details matter little; what matters is the fact that this mindset of entitlement to treat women as objects persists among a subset of men who believe they yield power.
And let’s be clear – this is, indeed, a subset. The overwhelming majority of men I know and have worked with are lovely, respectful, gentlemen. They are mature adults, capable of engaging with women in a professional manner, and well able to see the talent and value that women bring to the table. And if they think thoughts that lean towards the off-color – as most human beings do from time to time – they exhibit the self-control and interpersonal skills to keep those thoughts in check and comport themselves in a way that maintains an appropriate and healthy dynamic.
Yet we still read about, hear about and experience the Harvey Weinsteins of the world. I submit that you would be hard pressed to find a woman who couldn’t recount a story of a Harvey in her own life.
Ultimately, it’s fear that allows these Neanderthals to live on and perpetuate their disgusting, juvenile, damaging ways.
• Fear of the consequence of standing up.
• Fear of losing a job that provides for our families.
• Fear of not receiving a positive reference from that employer when we move on.
• Fear that no one will believe us.
• Fear of being labeled as a trouble-maker.
• Fear of the accusation that we’re trying to manipulate for our own benefit.
• Add your fear here.
Women on the receiving end of this harassment and intimidation are not the only ones who are afraid. Many times, it’s the decent men in the surrounding environment who know of or suspect the behavior and are unsure of how to address it without facing negative consequences themselves. This fear can take hold within anyone and result in silence and inaction.
It’s incredibly easy to judge or blame people for their response … or lack thereof. I get that. But we might all be better served by helping each other find a way through that disabling fog.
So what can we do?
I don’t believe the solution lies in changing or “fixing” the men in power roles who operate as entitled predators. The ROI of such efforts seems dubious. Is there anyone out there who really believes therapy and reflection will turn Mr. Weinstein around?
Employment laws and organizational policies to create safe environments for calling out harassers is a sound place to start, but not new … and perhaps not as effective as once thought. No doubt, there is more we can do here – from preventing the ascent of such people into leadership roles in the first place, to increasing the presence and power of women at the highest levels.
Fundamentally, the key we must turn is within each woman herself (and within each man of integrity with whom we work).
My Dad used to tell me that when you’re really good at what you do AND you’re a good person willing to work hard, someone is going to want you on their team. So if a boss disrespects you or treats you poorly, or if the door you knock on closes, there are other doors that will open. Always. No single person or company determines your future. You simply must believe in yourself, continue to better yourself and keep pursuing that path.
I don’t know if he intended this, but Dad’s mantra inspired something akin to fearlessness within me. It gave me a license and a responsibility to take a stand for myself and push back when someone tried to minimize or take advantage of me or those around me.
When I don’t feel valued or respected, I take action. If it doesn’t yield an appropriate outcome, I walk.
Of course, I sometimes pause and catch my anxiety and wonder where the dominos might fall. That’s to be expected! But ultimately, I return to the core belief that everything will work out and I’ll find the door I’m supposed to walk through.
And you know what?
There has never been any lasting repercussion from setting my boundaries. I’m not aware of a single missed opportunity … and if I did actually miss out on something, then it’s obviously been of no consequence since I can’t even name it! I am just fine today.
I don’t see myself as stronger, smarter or better than anyone else because of how I’ve handled these situations in my life. I do, however, see a way forward that begins with women knowing their value with every fiber of their being, regardless of what others around them say, do or think.
A power dynamic only exists when we allow it to … when we acquiesce to the belief that another
person or organization controls our destiny or has a right or privilege that we ourselves lack.
I was taught to operate from a complete and unwavering belief in my own and everyone else’s inherent value and in the universal right to be treated with dignity and respect.
Because of this, I have never regarded anyone I’ve interacted with – be it a C-suite boss or client, Board Director, or elected official – as being in a position to wield power over me.
Can they determine whether or not we work together? Of course. Might I lose that consulting engagement? Yes.
So what? I’m good at what I do and, therefore, there will always be options.
Women must know their own capability and potential so clearly that confidence and courage is in sufficient supply – at every stage of our lives – to tell the Harveys of the world exactly where to go.
And we need the decent men around us to be just as bold in standing up for what’s right, and being equally protected when they advocate for us.
Like those invisible shock fences that prevent dogs from crossing the perimeter of their property, a predator’s attempts at intimidation and assault should be met with a swift and sharp rebuke that sends them bolting.
It isn’t arrogant to believe you deserve to be treated fairly and professionally. It is human. None of us need negotiate or sacrifice who we are to achieve our goals.