Bittersweet Lemonade: Life After Sexual Harassment

It’s embarrassing. It’s uncomfortable. It’s devastating. It’s something women my age are taught to think is in the past. But, it’s not. It is very much alive in 2012. 

It’s workplace sexual harassment and gender bias.

It’s happened to me and it has probably happened to a woman you love.

Before it happened to me, I thought sexual harassment was similar to scenes in Mad Men, like a male boss grabbing a secretary’s butt. Or worse, a situation were a female employee had to perform sexual favors for her boss in order to keep her job.

It started small with this uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach. I believed in the goals of the company I worked for, so I wanted to trust in my team leader, but I could tell something was wrong and didn’t know what to call it. Though I was a part of the senior management team, I never felt I was given the same respect. There was an inauthenticity in the way my boss talked to the women on the team, including me.

During my time there, I went from being thrilled everyday working at my dream job to barely being able to get out of bed in the morning. I never knew if I was going to find the boss who told me I had leadership potential or the one who commented on how was I never going to meet a guy. During one meeting in particular, he tried to convince me that no one at the company liked me, and wondered how I met men when I went out. He insinuated that it must be impossible for me. I just sat there, in the little conference room, like a deer in headlights.

He tried to pick fights with me during staff meetings to get me to react. He complained publicly about my salary to a staff member I was mentoring. He “forgot” to invite me to meetings and then complained if I missed one or was late.

Later, I would find out that he was doing this to many other women on the team, each of us too confused, shocked, and in denial to turn to each other for help.

While I thought I was just being bullied at the time, I wasn’t in the place financially to quit without another job offer. Nor did I want to be seen as a quitter, especially since I loved the organization.

I confided in a few people, but I was too terrified to have my character and work performance attacked by him to accept offers of help. I still didn’t understand the severity of the problem, and frankly, was just afraid to lose a career I’d worked most of my life building.

For a short-term solution, I made sure that I was never alone with him. And I worked diligently to get transferred to another team.

Then, late one night, none of that mattered anymore. He made up performance excuses about me and a half dozen other women from my team. We were all fired. No severance. No thanks. Just thrown out into the cold with broken souls and lives.

Over the next few days, I learned of their mistreatment. I heard the hurt in their voices. And I finally admitted to myself that I was a victim of sexual harassment and gender bias.

I weighed the pros and cons and made the gut wrenching decision to not sue. I didn’t believe that my mistreatment was representative of the entire organization, nor did I want to invest the emotional toll of a long lawsuit or an EEOC complaint. Though I am at peace with my decision, I never got a neat, clean resolution.

I’m moving forward, but each step is so bittersweet. I’m learning that more people have my back than I ever realized, they respect me, and are standing up for me. I’m learning that I am stronger than I once thought.

But I’m also reminded as I look at my dwindling savings that I am hurting because someone chose to hurt me. I was devastated because someone chose to act in a cruel fashion. He still has his job because sexual harassment and gender bias is still taboo to talk about publicly. And, after all, who would want to hire someone who publicly complained about being sexually harassed? 

What I realized that I needed during this entire process was a “How To” on handling and responding to sexual harassment and gender bias for the post Mad Men gals.

In thinking about how I could have been guided to help myself more during the crisis, I narrowed it down to six things:

  1. Save Money. Make sure you have enough money saved so that you can walk away from any abusive work situation even if you can’t name the type of harassment.
  2. Confidence. You never ever deserve to be harassed or bullied. Do not be afraid of him attacking your character or your performance. Even if you are the world’s worst employee performance-wise, you never deserve to be mistreated.
  3. Accept Help. Because I lacked confidence in myself, I refused to let people help me, and I didn’t ask the right questions when I did reach out. Trust me, you have a team of people ready to help you as soon as you ask.
  4. Keep Detailed Notes. Names of people in meetings. Dates of meetings. Exact comments. Build your own war chest of evidence to back you up in meetings with senior officials and to help you track patterns and accept that you are being mistreated.
  5. Don’t Be Ashamed. The person sexually harassing you should feel ashamed, not you. No matter how you react or don’t react, it’s OK. There just isn’t a perfect map to guide you from pain to healing. It’s messy. It’s ugly.
  6. Know The Signs. Your boss should never comment on if you can pick up guys, your attitude on your period, or tell you not to wear skirts. Your boss shouldn’t use the word “creative” as a pejorative to lessen your intelligence or strategic thinking. Your boss shouldn’t call you “hot” when you do dress up. You boss shouldn’t talk about others not liking you. Your boss shouldn’t cancel projects you are working on without telling you. Your boss shouldn’t create a hostile environment between all the women on the team. And your boss shouldn’t only mentor or promote men.

Since being fired, I’ve learned that I’m definitely not alone, and sexual harassment is far too common. I’ve learned that I lacked the relevant cultural competency to identify and resist non-sexual assault based harassment in the workplace. After all, that was our mothers’ and grandmothers’ fight, right?

Sadly, I’ve learned that as long as positions of power exist in our society, women will be never have the same power as men. Gender bias is too engrained in the fabric of our society.

It’s up to us, ladies, to protect ourselves, and it’s up to you, men, to change your behavior.

Ana Hope is a business woman just trying to make it today’s world.

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