Sexual Harassment. Add my name to the list of women who have experienced this in the workplace. No surprise really, except perhaps for those who know me now, for my silence. Then and well, until now.
Why I didn’t speak up….reflecting on that time in my life, here’s why.
I needed the job. Pure and simple.
The employment prospects for lawyers with limited experience were grim back in 1995.
I was recently separated, barreling towards my first divorce. So I really needed the job.
I remember I was scared, really friggin scared, perhaps irrationally so at that time. Everything in my life seemed uncertain, so I held on with all my might to the fragile certainty of a bi-weekly paycheck. If I could pay my rent, keep a roof over my head, I could get through anything.
I also wanted to continue working in Toronto, in banking and insolvency law.
That legal “community” was small, tight. Who wants the reputation as the one rocking the boat (when employment prospects were slim)? So, I kept my mouth shut — and yes, the apology from the “community” came later.
My harasser was a brilliant attorney, truly my greatest mentor. He was also an alcoholic. Strange as it may seem, you can learn important lessons from really horrible people. Yes, a strange cocktail of fabulous and horrendous at the same time.
So I put up with it. “It”. His harassment. From direct to subtle to insidious. I saved the endless horrid voicemail messages he left for me, ultimately copying these to cassette tapes using my dictaphone (this was 1995 after all) then mailing the tapes to a friend “just in case”.
Many years later, I cried all over again when I held in my hands the envelopes containing so many tapes, so many tapes. The mind and body a resilient thing. I’d forgotten the volume of daily abuse I’d put up with, glossed over, tried to ignore.
At the point when I felt so alone, so isolated, so much shame….everything got scarier, stranger, even weirder.
A lousy performance review from my harasser put my job at risk — and threw me a lifeline at the same time. I’d been a top biller, the weekend warrior in the office and now boom! from rising star to Not Quite Up To Standard.
I had 6 months to turn it around.
The lifeline? To keep my job I was to move into another practice area, to work with another partner who would assess my skills.
I didn’t debate or challenge that performance review, I cried in front of the panel of three male partners delivering the news.
This is when it gets scary ‘you can’t make this sh#t up’ weird. My harasser began dating then became engaged to my mother.
I’ve told few people this. Most need a drink when I do.
Now who would believe me if I told them I was being harassed by this guy? He must be wonderful, he’s marrying my mother! I must be sour grapes because he gave me a poor performance review, or jealous of my mother’s happiness or some other soap opera Freudian weirdness fill in the blank — I kept my mouth shut.
In case you’re wondering, the ring was grandiose, the engagement short and the marriage never happened.
My relationship with my mother was over.
My career as a lawyer somehow suddenly managed to move forward.
I landed another job.
At a bigger, better law firm.
In the area of law I wanted to practice in.
I gave my notice, quickly, silently shoving THAT past as far behind me, though there was always the prospect of running into my harasser in court or hearing his name when discussing a transaction.
Alcohol, not harassment was his ultimate comeuppance.
So to answer the eternal question: Why don’t women speak up when they are harassed? It’s a complicated soup of very personal reasons, so hold your “why didn’t she speak up” theories, criticism and comments. Look at the calendar. Only now (what 20 plus years later?) am I finally writing about my harassment for the first time.