"It's a man's world."
Those words, uttered by a co-worker I greatly respected, will forever be imprinted in my mind. I'll always remember the way she sighed before making the statement. It was a pained sigh, one of an exasperated woman who knew the unfortunate truth of my situation: it wasn't worth the fight.
This was the unpleasant end to a conversation I had started only a few minutes previously, after confessing to a woman I worked with that I had been enduring months of repeated sexual harassment at our workplace.
To fill you in on the backstory, I was 19 and had been working a job in corporate security for a global bank for probably close to a year at that point. I LOVED the job. It was challenging, it was interesting, I really liked my boss and I was shocked to learn when I was hired that my starting pay would be $17 an hour. I thought I had hit the jackpot with this new position, but it was unfortunately short lived. My boss was a higher level manager of the corporate security department and I learned SO much from him. I felt trusted, respected and comfortable with him. We worked long hours and were often in the office when no one else was around. It allowed us some peace and quiet to get things situated before the phones started ringing and folks started knocking on his door needing his assistance or input.
There was another manager in our department who was lower-level, but still definitely above me and had a good relationship with our boss. They both worked their way up the corporate ladder into very successful positions within this company. The other manager, we'll call him "C", clearly was a bit intimidated by our boss but was also very friendly with him from years of working together. My boss was probably in his late 40's or early 50's and the other manager was in his early 30's I believe. Initially, after being introduced to "C", I was excited to have what I felt was another ally in this scary new corporate world I had entered. He was a bit more relaxed while my boss was incredibly formal in his approaches to everything he did.
My initial impression of C was that he was a nice guy, but able to be menacing when he wanted to be. He was much larger than me (5'7) at probably 6'3 or 6'4 with a broad build. He told me that because of his role in the company, he was allowed to use violence as a last resort if necessary. He shared once, almost gleefully, how he had essentially choke-slammed a woman for hiding in a bathroom and refusing to leave after being terminated from the company. He seemed so strangely proud that he was able to forcefully remove her from the premises, though by his own account of the situation she was not a very large person and he could have easily found another way to get her to move. That stood out to me as strange and kind of scary, but I didn't think too much of it at first because I was new to corporate security and didn't quite understand what his role entailed.
At first, C seemed like he wanted to be a friend to me. He'd stop by my desk and bring me coffee on days when he knew I hadn't been able to move for a while, he'd ask questions about my life and my weekend and seemed genuinely interested in my answers. I was grateful to have him as someone I could go to with my questions about corporate culture since it was my first time in a corporate position. Then, things slowly started to change. At first, it was the staring. I'd catch him staring at me during meetings and I'd return his gaze thinking he wanted to catch my attention for a reason, but he'd simply continue to stare and smile in my direction. I shook it off and assumed I was misunderstanding the situation. C had a beautiful fiance who he talked about often. I was young and insecure about my looks and my body, though looking back now I can see I had no reason to be. I assumed he couldn't possibly be interested in me, because I had seen his fiance and she was gorgeous, smart and talented. It felt silly to even think he'd be giving me a second look when he had someone so great in his life.
He went from staring in my direction, to staring at my body in a way that made me feel uncomfortable. He'd stare at my chest or legs intensely, and when I'd look back to see if it would break his stare, he'd look me in the eyes and smile or lick his lips suggestively. I remember this happening in a meeting once and I looked around to see if anyone was paying attention, but they weren't. Everyone else was focused on the topic of discussion while C was focused on me. I didn't know how to handle this, so when it happened I'd just look away or focus back on the meeting or my notes. Things quickly began to escalate from there. His visits to my desk to bring me coffee were no longer pleasant visits for me. Many times, I wouldn't even know he was there until I felt his body brush up against my shoulders. He'd stand so close to my chair and would hover there until I noticed and turned around. I later learned he enjoyed this view especially because it allowed him to fantasize about me "being on my knees in front of him".
C began stopping by my desk daily. He'd do his creepy hover move sometimes, other times he'd come up and whisper into my ear something like "your tits look great in that sweater" or "I want to fuck you SO hard right now". I honestly did not know how to respond. At first I'd try to laugh it off, but it was clear he wasn't making jokes so I would just look down at the ground and try to act like I couldn't hear him, though obviously I could since he was whispering directly into my ear. In addition to the gross behavior towards me, C also started making repeated comments about how his job was secure at this company and mine wasn't. If I argued with him about business topics, he'd quickly shut me down and remind me that he outranked me and if I didn't do as he said he'd tell my boss and my job would be terminated quickly. It wasn't hard to imagine that if I didn't like his non-business related behavior the same rules would apply.
C received a promotion that gave him a large office in a new building. Our boss had been moved to another location, and my role had transitioned to the building and area where C worked. The building we were working in was much less occupied and had us stationed behind a receptionist area that wasn't always staffed. I had a comically tiny office (that was once a closet, no joke) and C had a large office at the very end of the same hall. Now, instead of just coming up behind my desk and standing closely, he'd come into my closet-sized office and close the door behind him. He'd rub my shoulders and act grossly sweet and complimentary towards me, but if I pulled away at all his tone would change quickly. He'd take his hands off of me and his face would go from pretend friend to angry manager. If I rebuffed his advances he'd yell at me for something work related and storm out.
I began to dread going into the office each day because I never knew which version of C I was going to encounter. Would he be all work and act cold towards me, or would he be sweet yet inappropriate? I didn't want to lose the job I had or the money it was paying me, because I had recently moved into a rental house with my sister and had agreed to take on a larger chunk of the financial responsibility since her job paid much less. This wasn't the first time I had been sexually harassed in a workplace, so I felt I had no choice but to stick it out and hope it didn't get worse. Up until that point, the worst thing he had done was rub my shoulders and say disgusting things. I figured I could handle more of that if it allowed me to keep moving up in the company and eventually get away from him.
As you can imagine, his behavior didn't magically improve overnight, instead it continued to get worse. He commented on my clothing and body on an almost daily basis, though he went from being exclusively complimentary at first to being mean at times. If I tried to wear anything that made me feel like I could hide more of my body, he'd comment on how disgusting it looked and remind me which sweaters and types of pants he liked me to wear. He'd grope my breasts and press himself up against me whenever he felt he could do it without anyone noticing. There were a few times where he grabbed his genitals and with an angry tone in his voice he'd tell me to look at what I had done to him. It was such a confusing time for me. I wanted to get away from him but I felt stuck. What would I do if I couldn't work there? Without a college education my starting pay at most jobs wasn't anywhere near a livable wage that could cover the rent I was responsible for. I had bills to pay and just kept telling myself that if I could stick it out I'd eventually be in a position where I wouldn't have to deal with him ever again.
I think one of the worst aspects of this situation was that I started a new relationship while I was at this job, with a guy who I thought was sweet, sensitive and caring. Unfortunately, he was an alcoholic and was abusive himself. In fact, the first time I told him I loved him, he slapped me in the face because I wasn't making eye contact with him while I did it. That's another story for another day, so I won't get into it too much now. I remember telling him once that I was uncomfortable at work and didn't know what to do. His response was very dismissive and made me feel even more like I was overreacting. I hadn't really talked to anyone else about what was going on, and without any kind of validation that what I was experiencing was wrong, I felt again like I was just stuck in a shitty situation and if I could work hard enough I'd be able to get myself out of it.
One day at work, I was in the middle of a meeting with my boss when we were interrupted by C. He informed our boss that some higher ups wanted to talk to him and they left quickly together. An hour passed with me not knowing what I should do next, when C came back into the meeting room I was working in. He came over to where I was sitting, leaned over me and whispered "you're all mine now" then stood up and said clearly and in a very businesslike tone "Our boss has been let go because he was caught stealing from the company. I have been moved into his position and will be taking on his responsibilities from this point on." He walked out, leaving me at the table panicking over what that might mean for me.
The next day at work, I was grateful to learn I'd be taking on a special assignment working with another woman in our department. We'll call her "F". F was someone I had admired for some time. She was direct and somewhat intimidating, even folks in higher positions watched the way they worded things when dealing with her. F had an important role in our department and was quite particular about how she operated. Most folks had to fight tooth and nail to get even the smallest of desks allocated to their departments, yet F had two massive cubicles joined together to form her work space. Her desk area was larger than a lot of the offices in the building. I was assigned to work with her, at another station in her office area, for a few weeks. During my time working with her, I saw how even C would behave cautiously around her. She seemed to really have some pull in the company and had been there a long time.
After working together for a while, I felt like I had finally found the friend that I once believed C was going to be. F was smart, witty and compassionate. I really liked her and I looked forward to work every day during that assignment. We'd take turns putting on different music for each other and we'd take our lunch breaks together to chat. After some time working together, I started thinking that maybe I could ask her how to handle my situation with C. I was nervous, but one day when F was in a great mood, I decided to ask for help. I called out to her from across our now shared space: "F, I need to talk to you about something." "Sure thing, what's up?" was her reply, her back still turned to me as she worked. "Well, I want to talk to you about C." I quickly detailed some of the ways he was acting inappropriately, and how incredibly uncomfortable I was when he was around. What felt like an eternity passed by without her even turning around in her seat to respond. Then came the sigh. A deep, exhausted sigh. She maintained her focus on the papers in front of her and simply responded by saying "It's a man's world." while shaking her head slowly and that was it. I was dumbfounded. We continued on with our work and nothing else about it was mentioned again.
When I returned back to my regular work area near C's office, I was quickly reminded that I needed to get the fuck out of that job, fast. On one of my first days back, he cornered me in the hallway while the receptionist was gone. He backed up up against the wall and leaned against it with one arm on either side of my head. He was looking me up and down slowly while breathing heavily, his face incredibly close to mine. I was frantically looking around for any other people but knew the office was likely empty based on the time of day. My eyes moved up towards the security cameras, hoping that they were catching all of this behavior that he normally kept behind closed doors. C saw me looking at the cameras and grinned. "Do you know who designed the security system for this building? I did. I know exactly where each camera points and what their field of view is. They can't see us here." The phone at the empty receptionist desk rang and I rushed past him to answer it, grateful for a break. He went back to his office and I didn't see him for the rest of the day.
That night I told my boyfriend that I needed to quit. I told him about the incident and how scared I was about leaving, because it meant going back to the offices to drop off my company phone and security access badges. I told him how C had made it clear that he knew exactly where all the cameras were and that he wasn't afraid to use violence against women, then asked him if he would go with me to drop off my things. He responded by telling me that I really needed to learn how to face my fears or I'd never get ahead in life. This man who was supposed to be my loving boyfriend, refused to help protect me against a man I was scared of, yet had no issues with putting his own hands on women when he was angry. A true coward if I've ever seen one.
Without his support, I decided I'd go to the office super early the next day, in hopes that C wouldn't be there, knowing the majority of the office would be empty. At nearly 4 am the following morning, I walked into the office with a large envelope containing all of my work items they'd need in order to process my departure and pay me what I was owed. I had put all my things on my desk along with a note saying "I quit" and turned to walk out the door when a large figure walked into the dimly lit reception area, blocking my path to the doors leading to the parking lot. It was C. I froze. He noticed me not wearing work attire and asked what I was doing, his tone as cool as the early morning air. I mumble-shouted my response at him from a distance, telling him I hated working for him and that I was leaving. He started walking towards me with purposeful strides, anger now visible on his face, I unfroze just in time to run past him and out the doors. As soon as I made it past the doors I felt such immense relief. I knew that the parking lot cameras were covering me and I was safe, finally.
If you've read all the way to this point, you're probably wondering why I'm even sharing this. The reason I'm sharing is so more of you can understand why it is SO fucking hard to come forward at times. I'm so tired of seeing women torn down and mocked over not coming forward after suffering through harassment or assault. This story, my story, is only ONE of many other instances where I was in a position where my ability to live and pay my bills were directly threatened by me asking for support while being harassed. Unfortunately, I'm not the only one. For many of us, we've endured countless jobs and relationships where we were treated inappropriately or even assaulted or abused, only to find that we were the ones who were penalized for speaking the truth.
The next time you see a someone come forward to share details of their traumatic experiences, rather than ask "why now?" try imagining how hard it must have been to speak up. Try imagining just how bad it must have been for them to actually be willing to put themselves out there and speak their truth, knowing full well they would almost certainly have their own names dragged through the mud or even have their lives threatened in some cases. This shit is HARD. I have tried to stand up for myself and my fellow women time and time again, and each time I feel like we've made zero progress. Instead of the men who hurt us being questioned, WE were. Instead of the men who acted wrongly being punished, we were. I reported a man for harassment at a restaurant I worked at once and my hours were cut in response because he was a cook and they "needed him more". I told former friends about abusive exes, including the one I mentioned in this story, and was told "Yeah he's got problems, don't take it personally." I told a close friend in confidence about a horrendously controlling and emotionally abusive relationship I had just left and was told "I don't believe you. If it was that bad you would have left a long time ago." It's pretty hard to feel powerful and supported when your previous experiences have done a great job of making you feel weak and alone.
My life as a working woman began with me being harassed, groped and ignored when I attempted to seek help. I'll NEVER forget hearing the phrase "it's a man's world." Not just because it came from a woman I respected, but because she was right.
(Photo Credit: Mihai Surdu on Unsplash)