I have been harassed too many times to remember—on the street, on the bus, at school, at work.
The first time it happened was when I was in my early thirties, coming home from a work convention. I was traveling with two men who worked for the same company I did, and our boss had asked me to “show the ropes” to the senior colleague who was new to the company—introduce him to people, show him around, etc. The younger man was junior in experience and level to me, and relatively unknown as well.
What became very apparent early on was that the senior colleague had no respect for boundaries—or my boundaries, at least. As a woman and as an individual, I protect the space bubble around me—I don’t like strangers bodies touching me and I maintain a professional “distance” with colleagues unless I know and trust them extremely well. The senior colleague I was traveling with was all about getting me to “loosen up.” Interestingly, the junior colleague was very perceptive—and after less than a day, went out of his way to help me protect my spac. (He would physically insert himself between me and the senior colleague and other people, among other things.)
The convention wrapped up and we were all leaving on the same plane. At security, I was required to take off my sweater, which I had not anticipated, but had a tank top on underneath. While I was uncomfortable with this level of exposure, I had to comply. As I went through the scanner, I beeped and so was required to be searched by pat down. Again, this was excruciating for me—but I complied, put my sweater on and went to catch up with my colleagues. As I joined them, the senior man pulled out his phone, and, with glee, showed me that he had taken pictures of me getting patted down in my tank top.
My heart stopped and then started beating so fast I could barely breathe. I can remember going hot and cold, breaking into a sweat and thinking I was going to cry. This is my physiological reaction to extreme anger. I couldn’t speak, so I just walked away. Even thinking about it now—more than 15 years later—my heart races and my hands shake and I want to go into fight or flight mode. It still infuriates me.
For the entire flight home, I was consumed by these feelings. After we deplaned, at the luggage carousel, I walked up to the senior colleague, looked him in the eye and very coldly asked: “Are you always such a creep, or is this behavior my special treat?” Then I walked away.
The next day, I asked for a meeting with my boss, explained to him what had happened and indicated that I wanted to take legal action. My boss, who had always supported and encouraged me, got very shifty and uncomfortable. He suggested that perhaps it would be best if he spoke to the senior colleague instead and got his commitment that something like this would never happen again. After all, I didn’t want to be responsible for him losing his job, did I? He had a wife and kids and a mortgage…
I allowed myself to be convinced. I refused the offer of an apology and demanded my boss’ promise that the pictures would be deleted.
Most recently, I was at a board meeting—comprised of five men and me, including the executive director and administrator—discussing succession planning when the position of Vice-President came up for review. The older man sitting next to me jerked his thumb at me and said, “she’ll do it.” Everyone looked at me for agreement, but for my own reasons, I said no. The man next to me nodded, and, again with a thumb jerk, said, “she’ll do it.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. I repeated myself: “No.” He started to do it for a third time, at which point, somewhat incredulously, I looked at him and asked, “do you need a lecture in consent?” He responded by looking at me and saying “is that what you say to your husband in bed?” with a leer.
Again, all I could hear was the blood rushing in my ears. I could feel it staining my face. The humiliation and shame I felt—as he intended—was intense. I thought I was a respected member of the board I had volunteered on for more than five years as an industry expert with 30 years experience. Instead, I had been reduced to a sexual comment and treated like dirt when I didn’t do as I was told.
After going back to work in shock, I had a conversation with my HR leader, who was also a woman. We discussed the risks of taking action—disbelief, shunning, getting a reputation as a trouble-maker—and also my feelings of responsibility to not let it go this time, both for my benefit and for others. I’d heard from others what a letch this guy was and how he disrespected the women in his company with impunity. He was one of the “good ol’ boys.”
I made the calls and filed a complaint with the Chair of the Board and the Executive Director, both of whom were men. While extremely uncomfortable with the complaint, they acted professionally and respectfully and did the right things. For that, I’m thankful. I left that industry shortly thereafter (which is why I did not want to accept the role at that meeting).
I cannot speak to what, if anything, changed or transpired as a result of my action—but over the years, I can speak to how I have changed, and how these experiences have pushed me to. Writing this down has brought back the memories and feelings like it was yesterday. I can take a joke, and I don’t need to “loosen up” to make men comfortable.
The proverbial straw for me has been the rise of Donald Trump. When he won the election, I was so shocked, scared and angered that I knew I could no longer live without acting. I enrolled in a Master Degree program in Equity Studies in order to educate myself on how to advocate politically, socially and economically for marginalized groups; I became extremely vocal and started attending demonstrations and I started a Kiva group for women who support women.
I can confidently state that no woman has ever behaved in this or a similar manner towards me. When men say “you misunderstood,” or “it wasn’t intentional,” I don’t believe them. I didn’t believe them then and I don’t believe them now—especially now, after years of slights, innuendos and deliberate disrespect. It is intentional—and it’s usually a power play, one in which a woman has very little power.