In the wake of Cindy Adams irresponsible New York Post column where she tells women who experience sexual harassment to “deal with it” I have a confession.
Several years ago I took a job where I was the only women on the management team and the first female vice president at the company. One month after I started, I was at a tradeshow with some of the sales team, and one of our vendors visiting from Germany, all men. When the exhibit hall closed, the event organizers hosted a cocktail party with a live band and dance floor. I decided to hang out for awhile – thinking it would be a good opportunity to bond with my new coworkers. But after a few drinks, the sales guys started morphing into pigs.
Our European guest was on the dance floor, extremely drunk and hitting on every woman he saw. The rest of the group decided it was time to move on to another bar. “We can’t just leave (our vendor) here. Someone needs to drive him back to his hotel,” I said.
Their responses varied from, “Why don’t you take him home? He’d like that,” to “If we leave him here he’ll have to go home with one of those women and he’ll thank us for it later.”
I didn’t say anything and stupidly I decided to go with them to the next bar. We left our German guest doing the Hustle on the dance floor. Things were worse at the next spot. While none of the guys hit on me or made inappropriate comments directed at me, they talked and joked about all the other women there and discussed who they wanted to go home with. Before I could finish my first drink, I left.
On the drive home, angry and frustrated, I cried. I felt as if I had only three choices:
1. Never go out socially with my coworkers again. This option angered me because I knew if I choose it, I would always be an outsider –never able to infiltrate the boy’s club.
2. Confront them on their inappropriate behavior. But I suspected that although that might get them to behave when I was in the room, they would most likely just stop including me in meetings and events.
3. Bite my tongue and just “deal with it” whenever I was out with the team. But this option would compromise my integrity too severely and I knew I couldn’t do it.
I choose the first option and for the next three years I avoided any work functions outside the office, except for command performances. Three years later, I was at one of those mandatory outings. The entire management team, ten men and three women, were away for a weekend of training and strategic planning.
It was a tough meeting for me. The week prior, our company had conducted anonymous 360 reviews and two of my peers had skewered me. Their feedback was so vicious, and so unfounded, that the CEO and HR director pulled it from my file, but not before they let me read it. The comments and writing style easily betrayed the authors – a salesmen who had recently been replaced as the head of his department, and a woman on the management team with whom he was having an affair. During the offsite, whenever I spoke up, the couple would lean in to each other, whisper and giggle. I couldn’t wait to get in my car on Sunday afternoon and go home. But first, I had to get through the kumbaya group dinner on Saturday night.
We carpooled from the conference center to the restaurant. I was in a car with the owner of the company, the new sales VP and the customer service director, all of with whom I had a great working relationship. Seated next to me in the back seat of the car was our star salesman. He wasn’t the top seller, but he was among the top three and was the model for all new hires. At a previous management offsite, we did an exercise where we listed this guy’s personal attributes, because to the owner and the CEO, he personified our perfect employee. Integrity was at the top of the list.
Even though I never socialized with my coworkers outside of the office, I was very tuned in to what went on. I had a great relationship with my team and a as result, I heard all of the office gossip. I knew this sales guy, the model of integrity, cheated on his wife with coworkers whenever he got the chance.
I made it through the dinner even though I was seated next to the woman who had given me the negative review. The model employee was sitting across from me. After many drinks he took wagers from the other guys on whether or not he would go home with the waitress. When we stood up to leave, he made his move but was rejected.
Back in the car, same seats, everyone was joking and laughing. I tapped the customer service director, seated in the front, on his shoulder to get his attention. He jumped, startled. “Sorry,” I said, “I shouldn’t touch you.”
“You can touch me,” said Mr. Integrity. “Just cup your hand like this and touch me firm and steady.” He gestured to show me just what he meant. I was shocked. For a few seconds I wasn’t sure he had actually said that. And then, I was mortified and angry that my other coworkers had overheard it. Except they acted like they didn’t. I slapped the jerk.
The other guys in the car continued laughing and talking and made no mention of the crude exchange in the back. Why would they? It wasn’t in the best of interest of the owner or the VP of Sales to hear their top guy say something that could get him fired.
Back at the conference center, I went to my room while everyone else went to the bar. Later I learned Mr. Integrity had accidentally dialed his wife on his pocketed cell phone and she had heard him propositioning the waitress. It was small comfort.
I never reported the incident and never confronted my coworker. I was embarrassed, outraged and convinced it wouldn’t be handled well. I became even more withdrawn at work and my performance declined. Three months later I got my first and only legitimate bad review, from the CEO, and he and I planned my exit strategy. I left the company at the worst part of the recession with a small severance package. But I didn’t care. I just wanted to get out of there.
I’m not proud of my decision to do and say nothing and I don’t advocate it as a strategy for anyone else. But I have forgiven myself because I know I felt too weak at the time to confront the problem. For a long time after, I questioned the validity of my membership in the feminist club. Who was I to speak out for equality and women power when I let that kind of behavior slide? Even with hindsight, I don’t know if I would change what I did.
But I’ve come to the conclusion, who better than me? I have personally experienced sexism on the job (there are other tales to tell but this story is long enough). And now I can offer my experience, my perspective and my support to the next woman who goes through it. And if she chooses not to fight back, I can offer her my full understanding without judgment.