Before there were scores of women coming forward to chronicle decades of sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of prominent men in virtually every profession, there were legions of women who suffered the same thing and whose stories remain largely untold. They were everyday professional and service women who were forced to quietly accept sexual harassment, leave their jobs or pursue the difficult path of complaint—and in rare cases, lawsuits.
I was one of those women. And contrary to the stories of massive payoffs by celebrities and public figures, I found that fighting back was frustrating at best and soul-crushing at worst.
I fought back twice. In the first instance, I was a rising star in a collectibles company who had been literally catapulted from copywriter to head of the advertising agency to head of product development. I was the darling of the owner, and the president of the company, which is the recipe for peer resentment—so I didn’t think twice about the time one of the VP’s, angry that I was given responsibility for a key function of his division, came to my office and loudly threatened to “get me.”
But later, when we were traveling internationally with other people from the company, he changed his tune. He put his arm around me in a restaurant and told the waiter that we were going to have sex—but first we would have martinis. Interrupting my conversation with a group of German counterparts in another restaurant, he suggested that I should “lighten up” and “get what I needed at the sex shop down the street.” On the way back to the hotel, he told me he didn’t know what he would do if he didn’t get laid that night.
I spent the night in fear that he would come drunkenly pounding at my door—and I wasn’t the only one. Back at the office, he got a ride back to his car from a young coworker and came on to her; he got out, she locked the doors and he pounded on her car while shouting “open up, I want to f*ck you!” It was caught on tape. I heard about it from a security guard. The women filed a complaint and was transferred out of his department.
After weeks of blatant harassment and stories of his sexual conquests in meetings—including with a girl his wife coached on a soccer team—I complained to our boss, the president of the company. He told me to handle it myself. When I complained a second time, I was told I would be working from home. A short while later, I was terminated completely. He kept his job.
I filed a lawsuit. At first they were incredulous, then they were laughing and dismissive. They interviewed people within the company, trying to convince them to sign statements defaming me. No one would.
In discovery, they questioned me about my personal life. I was a single mother of two, with a stellar record with the company which I had carefully documented. Their attorney turned dramatically to me in one session and asked “did you or did you not have sexual relations with [John Doe]?”—referring to a single man I was dating at the time. My attorney told me they could ask me virtually anything and I had to answer.
This went on for over a year. In the meantime, I was turned down for jobs by people who seemed sold on me but then heard that I had sued my employer for sexual harassment. I didn’t work for nearly two years.
In the end, a settlement was reached—but not before my own attorney, a woman, expressed annoyance that I wouldn’t take a lower offers. I prevailed because I had a strong case, and it was documented with boxes of materials. When they countered my suit with claims that I was fired for incompetence and other issues, I produce reams of glowing announcements of promotions and flattering notes from the owner of the company.
The takeaway from that lawsuit was to keep records—not just of the harassment, but of your own performance and standing. Because you will be attacked. Viciously. (Also, choose attorneys carefully.) And be prepared to have that action follow you through many years, with the result that, in a small industry like mine, word gets out. The reality is that you may lose out on other opportunities.
In the corporate world, the man who creates the problem gets a pass, but the woman who complains is forever branded a troublemaker.
Within six months after I had taken the job with the collectibles company, it was bought by a couple who took it private. All the top executives got golden parachutes. The former Chairman had taken a job with a non-profit at no salary, because he had a non-compete agreement and was still collecting his salary from the collectibles company for ten years. When his non-compete restriction was up, he got $5 million to start a new company and immediately hired another former collectibles company executive, who recommend he also hire me.
Unfortunately, the man who recommended me thought I would be a worker bee—and he was shocked to find that the senior executive had hired me at the same level and had offered me the same salary with stock options, bonuses and an equity stake in the company. Absolutely nonplussed, he went to the senior executive and informed him that I had filed a sexual harassment suit against the collectibles company in the past. “Well,” replied the chairman, “I guess we will have to not sexually harass her.”
It wasn’t what my coworker wanted to hear. The animosity and condescension on the part of all the men was palpable from the start. (I was, of course, the only woman.) As the company set out to develop businesses to take public, it became painfully apparent that these men had been very fortunate to have reached their professional level. I found myself having to shoulder more and more of the work. Then, one day, several of them called me into a large open space where a computer was set up. They said they wanted to show me something. As the image slowly loaded onto the screen, I was shocked to see a woman’s face with an enormous erect penis ejaculating all over it.
I went straight to the COO and told him that, as a senior partner, I was appalled. I pointed out that we had secretaries in the office who would bring complaints against us if they were subjected to these images. It was a liability. I later found out in the subsequent lawsuit that they had actually built a large pornographic database.
The next morning, I was called into the COO’s office and told it “wasn’t working out,” and I was being terminated with two weeks severance. They were ignoring the fact that I was a senior partner, with a share in the company. If I had been a man, they would have severed the relationship by buying out my stake, which was valued at over a million dollars.
I went straight to my office, pulled all the files and loaded them in boxes. These, I dropped out the window of my ground floor office. I went out the front door and drove around to the back, where I retrieved the boxes of documents that could prove the men were incompetent and that I was continually saving us from mistake after mistake.
When they refused to pay what they owed for my share in the company, I found a high-powered law firm and hauled my boxes in for them to review. They were impressed enough with the massive amount of documentation that they took the case on “contingency.” But once again, I found myself vilified by my former colleagues—despite solid, concrete proof to the contrary. In the end, this suit was also settled—but once again, it cost me some major opportunities.
I’d like to say that the present climate of the #MeToo phenomenon will change things for women. But there was a reason that women didn’t come forward before—they would have been ruined professionally, and the men who harassed them would have been given a pass.
That hasn’t changed. Not yet. It’s the good old boy’s network. And if a woman does her best tp document, document, document and find an attorney willing to put the firm’s assets and support behind her, she can win. But it won’t be easy.
And that still needs to change.