I met my first significant boyfriend at work. I was in my early twenties. As our relationship developed, so did our careers. We were in a relationship and working together on and off for five years. I eventually broke up with him for a myriad of reasons, and to this day he plays the part of the wounded martyr of our breakup. The martyr routine, along with his seniority, meant that our friends and coworkers turned against me after I dumped him. The same people who saw him drunk and abusive, who saw him cheat, who judged me for being with him, turned against me. I went through months of reliving all the reasons I dumped him, filled with a rage I couldn’t express knowing he’d use it as evidence that “she’s crazy”. There’s the added rub: they push you, dehumanize you, and then use your reaction as a hit against your sanity. So I switched industries and sectors to get away from that mess. I started from scratch and was back at the reception desk.
Reception is an interesting role because it is such a feminine job in that the job description itself includes soft skills and affectations more associated with the female side of a binary gendered perception. I fell into that mold, wearing office dresses and smiling more than I would in my usual accounting roles. One guy who was always in my face once told me that the fit of my dress made his pants feel tight. When I repeated what he’d said to my manager, she replied, “Ew! That’s SO gross, why would you say that?!” She shamed me, as if repeating those words was the real offense and I was the perpetrator, ruining her day with my comment.
When I was a candidate for another job at the same office, the company was structured so that the final step was for the hiring manager to get approval from a union steward. This last meeting was scheduled for a Friday at 10 a.m. The night before, we were all at the pub downstairs for a round of Thursday night drinks. As the union steward drunkenly ran his sloppy hand up and down my leg, I wondered, “What is the responsible move here? Will it cost me my job?” But I had learned that if I reacted then I was the problem, and I needed this job. This occurred in 2015, shortly before the “Me Too” movement began, and is a wonderful example of how needed it was.
I got the job, and made the mistake of justifying my department director’s creepiness as a sign that he had my back. I kept my mouth shut when he sat next to me in meetings, so close that I couldn’t help but touch him whenever I slightly moved or breathed. This was IT Project Delivery, where the environment felt more traditionally masculine. The women seemed to behave either as ball-busters, partying after work like “one of the guys”, or as part of the administrative staff in pencil skirts and high heels, flirting and giggling at the after work parties. I was on contract and once made the mistake of copying my director in an email as an FYI. I suddenly became “that bitch!” when I made the lateral move to work under his friend and former boss. My former director emailed my new boss to ask, “Are you really going to hire that bitch?!” I had offended him because of a perceived overstep after months of keeping my mouth shut and sitting statue-still when his leg would “accidentally” rest against mine in budget meetings.
Being a contract employee also shaped my experience with this company. In retrospect, I hadn’t felt like a person, but rather like an image that had to be upheld depending on my role. When I copied my manager on an insignificant communication, apparently out of turn, I became offensive because I’d broken out of their template. My guess is that my manager at reception did not want to acknowledge the issue at the risk of being labeled “that bitch” as well.
Leaving that workplace was like leaving an abusive relationship. I realized that years of working on contract for them and trying not to be offensive had led me to compromise myself for someone else’s gain. It was as though genuine contempt was born the second I acted like a person rather than a commodity. Having also left an abusive relationship, and letting him keep the friends and remain in the industry, I realized that there is often still a tax to pay on having a voice. However, the stronger we get the less that tax becomes, and it was worth it for me to pay.
Since my experiences, the “Me Too” movement has given me hope that people are finally beginning to listen to those who are bravely speaking out against unjust and marginalizing treatment. This movement’s strength is present in its name: ”Me Too” indicates that we are standing together to collectively push back. I remember feeling isolated when I tried to talk to my manager and the blame was flipped onto me, but now it seems the opposite is happening. “Me Too” creates a sense of community rather than isolation. I hope the movement will continue to get people to work together, support, and empower one another, especially in the workplace, where mine and so many others’ livelihoods are at stake.