Years ago, when I was a rookie stockbroker working for a big name brokerage house, a senior VP offered to ease my way into ‘the big times’, if…
The ‘if’ was the catch. It involved sexual favours and the threat that if I told anyone, no one would believe me. He was a senior partner. I was a rookie. No contest.
I believed him so, rather than submit to his sexual advances, I did the only thing I thought I could do at the time. I said nothing and moved to another firm.
Several years later, after leaving the brokerage industry, I worked for a Canadian hi-tech start-up with offices in Silicon Valley. I was situated here. Most of the team I worked with was in California. Everyday I’d have a conference call with one of the VPs in the California office, and every call, he’d make some type of sexual innuendo over the phone.
I thought the best way to handle it was to laugh it off. To pretend I didn’t hear, or didn’t get his meaning.
That worked, until we were alone in a hotel elevator while attending a conference in Dallas. His floor was before mine. The doors opened for him to exit, he turned to me and asked if I was joining him in his room. I laughed it off. Pretended like I just thought he was being funny.
The next day, he began to make my life hell. There was nothing I could do that was right. Nothing my department created that met his needs for sales and marketing support.
My boss asked me what was going on. I feigned confusion. I told him I didn’t know. I suggested it was perhaps a mis-communication.
And then the guy in California got really nasty. I couldn’t ignore it so I went to my boss and told him the truth.
The solution. They reorganized our work so that I did not have to work directly with the man in California. He was too valuable to lose. To critical to our agenda to let go.
I said nothing. Got pregnant soon thereafter and left the company.
I felt responsible, culpable, accountable for what happened. And, for my actions, I was. Except, I thought it was all my responsibility. That their bad behaviour was my fault. That if I had just… (pick your poison) … THEY wouldn’t have felt they could make such advances.
Truth is, what I am most responsible for is my silence.
Truth is, millions of women continue to encounter such treatment today. It’s not because we deserve it, or ask for it, or ‘know’ we want it. It’s because sexual politics continue to play a role in our society, and we stay silent.
Last night at dinner with my eldest daughter, she talked about power and control and how if women do not know they have choices, or understand their power, or believe the stakes are too high to challenge the status quo, they cannot be held accountable for their actions.
For me, having walked away in silence, I disagree.
At the time, I thought I had no choice even though I had lots of choices — I just chose to take the one that I thought ‘hurt’ the least.
Truth is, I was scared to rock the boat. I was afraid to take on the male establishment, to challenge the ‘acceptable’, to poke the bear of sexual power and confront the underbelly of sexual power.
Truth is, I was afraid to speak up.
I can rationalize my fear away by saying it was too hard. I would have been pilloried by the men. I would have been ridiculed, mocked, black-listed, shunned.
It doesn’t matter.
Truth is, I stayed silent in the face of abuse.
If we want to change the world, if we want to stop abuse, end violence, end sexual predation, then we must not let fear drive us into hiding.
We must let courage draw us into giving voice — and stop being afraid of the consequences.
And we must stop saying, I didn’t know any better.
I knew better when I walked away in shame. I knew better when I didn’t speak up. It’s just, I was afraid of the consequences. Afraid of what might happen.
Sure, it’s not fair that women have to rise up to claim their voice and create equality. I mean really, why can’t men just do it for us?
And that’s the thing. Men can’t do it for us.
We must do it for us.
It is our right.
It is our duty.
It is our obligation.
If I could go back and change anything in those two encounters, it would be that I did not silence my voice. It would be that I recognized the moment in time where I had the opportunity to make a difference, not just for myself, but for women, and men, today.
‘Cause here’s the thing. What happened to me happens to millions of women everyday. And for the majority, we are still saying silent.
It’s time to stop the silence and roar.