Actors, politicians, media moguls, athletes, doctors…powerful men around the world have been accused of sexual harassment or assault, from inappropriate remarks to rape. In a sudden and shocking power reversal, women have stepped up at great personal risk to say, “Enough!” We will no longer be silent about the demeaning and intimidating behavior that damages us physically, emotionally and, all too often, financially.
I’m grateful to the brave high-profile women who stepped forward first, Gretchen Carlson, Ashley Judd, Rachael Denhollander and more. Their actions have emboldened women with far less power and privilege to share their own stories, via social media under #MeToo or more privately within their own circle. The movement feels like a seismic culture shift with no turning back. In its wake, I have a few questions.
First, will the workplace changes happening in high places filter down to improve conditions for women in less glamorous positions: restaurant workers, administrative assistants and those breaking into male-dominated fields like technology and construction? Unless the woman works for a high-profile person, I fear she will have no more power than I did when I was kissed by my boss at a small trucking company nearly 30 years ago.
I was 28 years old, divorced with two daughters. My boss, who was probably near forty, was rumored to have separated from his wife and young sons. As our team of four women and two men worked the phones, trying to book freight for our long-haul drivers at a profitable rate per mile, the boss helped just one of us meet her goal. The young, blonde divorced mother of two ate lunch with the boss on a blanket in the park across the street, in full view of everyone. She once mentioned spending time with him in a hot tub somewhere on the weekend and I later saw her sitting on another manager’s lap in his glass-walled office. He was old enough to be her father.
One day I found myself alone in the office with the boss; it was my turn to work a Saturday morning with him. I went about making my calls, finally reeling in a load of freight at a good rate, a difficult feat in the competitive market. Suddenly the boss appeared next to me in my cubicle, kissing me on the cheek while I was wrapping up the call. By the time I hung up the phone, he had gone downstairs to fetch another cup of coffee. What could I say or do when he returned? I felt awkward and vulnerable. My boyfriend (now husband of nearly 25 years), who happened to be a professional truck driver,wasn’t happy to hear about the incident either.
I never feared being sexually assaulted or fired but I was no longer willing to work in such a stressful environment. Worse than the kiss was the company culture; I’d also witnessed the boss backing one of my male coworkers up against a wall to scream at him for not finding a load of freight for an idle driver. The job paid better than most customer service jobs, the only thing I was trained for at the time, so there was a lot at stake when I approached the vice president of the company about the toxic working conditions.
“You’re being too sensitive,” he said. “This is the way trucking companies work.”
There was no human resources department and no use approaching the company owner who was even less sophisticated than his vice president. I decided to take a stand, at great personal cost, and quit that job. I didn’t have a new job lined up yet but stepped out in faith, selling some personal possessions to tide us over. Luckily, I found another job fairly quickly and a new coworker, who happened to be male, told me not to let the trucking company off the hook.
“Go file a complaint with the Department of Human Rights,” he suggested.
And so, I did.
“What do you think [the boss] will say happened?” the investigator asked.
“I think he will admit he kissed me and say he was just happy I booked the load of freight and didn’t mean anything else by it.” And, that’s exactly what he said.
After some time, my claim was rejected by the man leading the human rights department at the time.
In my appeal, I argued that the boss’s intent made no difference. The test was whether he would have kissed one of my male coworkers in the same situation. By this time there was a new leader of the department and I won my case. The company offered about a month’s pay as a settlement, far less than the financial loss I took. When I refused, they tripled the offer. I would’ve held out longer, but the department had run out of patience. If I didn’t accept the money, they said, I’d have to hire a lawyer and go to court. Unwilling to subject my former coworkers to questioning, I accepted the money and moved on with my life. My boss was not fired, and I’ll never know if anything changed before the company eventually went out of business.
In the shadow of more serious abuse, this was a minor incident with little impact on my life, but it changed my outlook. I knew I hadn’t done anything to encourage that boss, except maybe carry the stigma of divorcees, but I was overly cautious with men in every workplace after that.
This happened at the same time Anita Hill made her allegations against Justice Clarence Thomas and we know how that turned out. It took nearly 30 years for other women to come forward with their own stories.
On the list of steps toward permanent change, check off the need for victims and bystanders to come forward. Now those in power must investigate every claim and demonstrate zero tolerance for harassment, intimidation and assault in the workplace. Change begins with a single voice. Will it be yours?