Sexual Harassment: The Courage to Speak Up
Six months with the new firm and I was already account manager for two key clients. I was getting praises from my boss, my clients and my colleagues. I had a company credit card and a view of the city skyline from my desk. I was happy.
Then we went to dinner.
John*, my boss, took the team to an expensive restaurant. There were eight of us – half men, half women, including Peter, the new guy. There was champagne with dinner and I enjoyed a glass with the rest of the group but limited myself to one.
After dinner, we all went to nearby bar. My boss ordered a round drinks for everybody – I had a soft drink. The atmosphere was cheerful and relaxed.
At one point I found myself in the middle of the group of guys, retelling a funny story. But as I was mid-sentence, John suddenly reached out and grabbed my breast. He laughed.
The others giggled nervously. They were treating it as a “practical joke”.
I was stunned.
What brought this on? It was completely unprovoked. It had nothing to do with the story I was telling. It just came out of nowhere. A random, invasive attack.
I felt paralysed. Suddenly I wasn’t an important part of the team but just somebody he could play around with. He was the alpha male showing off for the other dogs.
I froze and couldn’t finish my story.
I went to the ladies room and stared at myself in the mirror. I tried to pull myself together. I should let it go – pretend it didn’t happen. I could persuade myself that, yes, it was just a joke. “Stop being so uptight!”
I made a conscious effort to not get upset. I gave myself a pep talk. “ I’m tough. I can take it, ” I said to myself.
I returned to the group. Avoiding the gang of guys, I spoke one-on-one with Peter. We chatted about common acquaintances and made small talk.
Then he grabbed me, putting his hand on my bum. Could this really be happening again?
Now, feeling more angry than shocked, I grabbed his arm and pulled it away. But he didn’t get the hint. He went on to suggest we should share a taxi home!
I decided to leave.
I went out and hailed a cab. In the taxi, I was shivering. I felt sick. I cried and called my sister for comfort. But it took me ten minutes before I could string a complete sentence together. I was a mess.
They had made me feel like I was a bimbo – the happy-go-lucky blonde in a B-movie who was there simply to provide breasts for the boys to look at. They believed they could treat me however they wanted; touch me wherever they wanted. I was a non-person.
How come they didn’t know that their behavior was not OK, probably even criminal? Had I suddenly jumped into a madhouse?
Eventually I realised that my boss’ action had sent the signal to the others that it was OK to treat me like an object, an office plaything. He used me to display his power to the others: “Look at me. I’m the boss. I can do what I want!” Peter interpreted this as meaning I was fair game for such abuses. Maybe he even thought he could impress the top dog by imitation.
You mean, you can’t take a joke?
After some soul searching, I resolved to be firm and decisive. I would not be a victim. I would not be the kind of weak woman I had accused other friends of being in similar situations. I would be gutsy. I would fight them.
The next day I asked to speak with John privately.
“You molested me last night and it can never happen again. I hope you understand that.” His face turned red.
What I thought would be a quick conversation ending with him apologising turned into a 90-minute argument. He continuously told me that I was being overly sensitive. “It was a joke, what’s wrong with you? You mean, you can’t take a joke?” He fumed but I held my ground.
Eventually he offered an empty, insincere apology. “I’m sorry… if that makes you feel better.” But he added caveats that he was drunk “and probably you were too”.
I was unsatisfied but I thought it was over.
I was wrong.
In the following weeks, I was given fewer and fewer tasks. John constantly questioned and criticised me about work that was previously approved, despite the praise and appreciation that came from my clients.
Initially, I thought I was just being paranoid. But even my work mates noticed it. Slowly I came to realise I was being bullied. The criticisms and reduction in responsibilities were John’s revenge.
Over time my dream job was becoming a nightmare. I was unhappy at work and my self esteem was eroding. I lost my confidence in myself and my job performance began to suffer. I constantly felt the weight of my boss’ disapproving glare following me across the room.
I considered resigning. I knew this was admitting defeat. But I was losing more than a battle. I was losing myself. I needed to get out.
I did not have another job. I’d have to borrow money from my mother for rent. It seemed crazy to just leave without preparation but I couldn’t take it anymore. All I could think of was leaving.
My sister was a great source of support and understanding. I was worried that she would also think I was being paranoid – but, knowing my character, she could see I was in a bad place. Her belief in me was a great lifeline. Because my boss was always telling me that I was the one with a problem, I continued to question myself. That’s the thing about sexual harassment. You always doubt yourself, and the seriousness of what was done to you.
On the day I resigned, John had one last barb.
“I know your type” he said, “If you ever tell anyone about this, I will ruin your reputation. I will let the world know what kind of a woman you are.”
I was silent during his outburst, but afterwards, I cried for hours.
I had done the right thing. I had challenged the perpetrator. I did more more than what a lot of other women would have done. But this satisfaction came at a price: leaving a job I loved.
Luckily for me, I had a supportive network of family and friends, who were able to give me the strength to stand up for myself.
My sister’s company was a client of my agency. In an unexpected move, and of her own accord she decided to terminate the contract with my agency.
The day I resigned she called and spoke to John personally. She told him that her company engaged his agency to handle crisis management among other things, but that based on how they handled this incident with me, she had lost all trust in their ability to manage any crises.
It would have been much harder to overcome these things had I remained silent. I think that, for the rest of my life, I would have regretted not standing up for myself.
Not only that but I would like to think that my former boss was held responsible for his harassment and will think twice before ever trying something like that on an employee ever again.
I admit that in the past, I was harsh to judge other women when I heard how they did not stand up in the face of sexual harassment. I thought they were weak. But I simply didn’t get it.
It is not easy to understand the sense of isolation, confusion and constant internal struggle. It is not so easy to stand up and deal with the repercussions of the perpetrator fighting back.
But I still encourage anyone in this situation to fight the good fight. Do whatever you can to stop the harassment as early as possible and ensure it doesn’t happen again. When we keep silent the harasser believes they can get away with it and will do it again… to you or to someone else.
Today, I feel comforted knowing that I took action – even if it ended with my resigning, I know I did the right thing by speaking up.
*Names have been changed.
If you know someone who is experiencing workplace sexual harassment, help is available. Call the AWARE helpline on 1800 774 5935 for advice, or just someone to talk to.
To safeguard your company from sexual harassment, and to learn how to correctly and professionally manage it if it does occur in your office, attend AWARE’s workshop Managers’ Guide to Dealing with Workplace Sexual Harassment on 17th February 2pm to 6pm at the AWARE Centre.