I have been harassed and touched inappropriately in the workplace. Several jobs, actually. Last year, after Trump made his “lockerroom” (a-hem) remarks, I participated in a Palm Beach Post article about harassment and it was so stunningly sad to see how many women go through this. Just as the #MeToo movement has destroyed a part of me. I’m 55, so many things have changed. Not. This.
There’s so much to be said about this topic. I want to relate two specific points of my own experience.
What Mayim Bialik said struck me deeply. As I said, I was harassed at more than one job. Why? What was it about me that was causing my bosses, or men I worked with, to think it was ok to touch me, talk about me inappropriately, talk to me inappropriately. If I walked by a cluster of attorneys, did they think I was deaf and didn’t hear what they said when I walked past them? Was I dressing in a way to invite it? I’m an open, often happy person – was that coming off as flirty or inviting? At the time it never occurred to me that they were in the wrong, it clearly had to be something about me that invited unwanted attention.
I have been a single mother for over 30 years. At the time period I’m describing, I had to work and every dollar counted. No child support, no family nearby, no real savings. So I learned to tolerate a certain amount of abuse and harassment because that was how you kept your job. You put up with being demeaned to leave the job, go home to your family and try not to bring the detritus home.
This one particular attorney (Attorney A) I only worked for briefly, less than six months. Eventually I was able to drop him from my resume altogether. I left with a job in hand despite the difficulty in explaining to interviewers why I needed to leave this job after such a short stint. What I would have really liked to tell them was this:
- He constantly commented on how he wanted me to dress – higher heels, silkier fabrics, more dresses.
- I would sometimes return to my desk to find Attorney A straddling my chair backwards, demanding a shoulder massage. I refused and made excuses (“you know we have this deadline”). After the 3rd or 4th time I went to the office manager and told her what was happening. A few days later one of the other partners called me into his office. I was sweating bullets because I was sure I was going to be fired for “telling on” my boss. The partner apologized for Attorney A’s behavior and for any times that he may have made me uncomfortable. At the time it felt like enough, but later I realized that while he apologized, he never said it would stop. And surely it didn’t.
- Randomly trying to touch my legs or walking down the hallway Attorney A might brush his hand against me “oh excuse me”.
- Telling me I should use his trainer because he could work miracles with my body (which mostly made me laugh, at the time I was lucky if I had $20 after paying bills).
- Saying goodbye to clients, Attorney A would sometimes put his arm around me – up to my sideboob. Pretty sure some of the female clients knew, not only because I pulled away; I can’t help but wonder how many female clients he treated this way.
- These are just some of the things he did. There are things I’ve buried and forgotten. There’s attitudes and tones of voice and the like that are difficult to describe with words. Here’s what finally made me start interviewing for other jobs:
- I’m on a stepstool in the kitchen area, getting some supplies down. Suddenly someone is gripping my butt firmly with his thumbs moving. I screamed “What the fuck are you doing?” and Attorney A squeezed my butt one more time and said “I wanted to make sure you wouldn’t fall”. That was that. I printed out my resume and started interviewing. Eventually, because it had been such a short period of employment, I was able to drop him from my resume altogether.
With this job change I moved into personal injury and eventually family law. I moved outside of the circle of Attorney A. I heard at one point that he had been suspended by the Bar and it had to do with real estate transactions/funds. I’m not even sure the Florida Bar punishes attorneys for harassment.
Later I heard he’d had bad health problems and had retired.
Fast forward to about 3-4 years ago. I was a certified paralegal as well as an E-RYT200 certified yoga teacher. At the time I taught group classes at a studio and I took most of my classes there. One Saturday I walk in to take class and go to sign in, I’m in a fine mood because hello, yoga! I’m signing in and chatting with the studio owner/my boss and I freeze. ATTORNEY A WAS SIGNED IN TO THAT CLASS. My stomach immediately hurt and I started sweating. I went in anyway, determined not to let that man impact one more second of my life.
Attorney A had obviously had some terrible health problems. He was a husk of himself. He did not recognize me. I set up as far away from him as I could without being able to see him. I could feel him anyway. I could feel his energy and I had a difficult time focusing on class. I left the room quickly and was preparing to leave when I saw Attorney A talking to the owner, who was talking about a class I taught and how good it would be for him.
I called her later and explained. I realized there was nothing I could do about him attending a public group class at a studio, but if she could steer him away from me, please do. I also asked her to be careful if he asked for private training because even diminished, he terrified me.
Yes, he came to my class. I had that same experience of nausea and sweating. He still did not recognize me, and that helped. I took a longer time than usual centering at the beginning of class, which was mostly for my own benefit. As I started teaching and interacting with my regulars, I began to feel more comfortable. I still could not go near Attorney A. I still could feel his energy even when I couldn’t see him. I got through the class and felt like I had gone waaaaay outside my comfort zone.
How did I feel? I did not confront him for the things he’d done – given his health issues, I had no idea what he remembered. It was hard not to feel some sympathy for him. Attorney A had always been vain, well-groomed & dressed and worked out routinely.
Despite the fact that I was in a roomful of people with him both times I was still scared. A whole lot of uncomfortable memories and moments surfaced. I started to wonder …. was I scared of him, the memories he’d caused to surface, or my own shame and embarrassment. My guilt that I didn’t do anything other than tell the office manager what he was doing.
Aside from the fact that I am terribly saddened and depressed to see how many women younger than me, how many generations of women are still subjected to this treatment and worse, aside from all that I intend to spend time working on my own feelings. #MeToo has made me realize that there are many things I still need to face from my past and that when a person abuses you, its really hard not to continue to be in fear of them.