In December 1997, three months after turning 20 years old, I graduated from college. In an effort to make some money before I left for grad school the following summer, and because nobody lives in my mother’s house for free, I got a job. Using my fabulous brand-new biology degree, I became a security specialist at the headquarters of a credit union.
I worked the day shift, 7-to-3, with another guy and our manager. It wasn’t a uniformed position, and I mostly sat at the front desk checking in visitors and monitored alarms at our satellite locations.
Shortly after I started, my manager began making sexual comments in the office. Because of my circle of friends, the interests I had, I was used to hearing what the current president calls “locker-room talk” in my presence. Because of my age, I was often the youngest in the circle and, as a result, was everyone’s little sister. I’d also spent the past few years in college as a student athletic trainer, so I was familiar with how men talked to and about women. I was never the target of the conversation ... until then.
My manager often spoke about how I’d never experienced things with a “real” man because I was used to dealing with boys. Through office conversation, he knew that I hadn’t had a lot of boyfriends or been on many dates. I eventually felt guilty for participating in these conversations because it seemed like I was egging him on when I knew I wasn’t interested.
But he was my boss, and I worried about what brushing him off would mean for me. Plus, this job wasn’t long-term for me; I just needed to make it until summer.
Soon, I learned not to be alone with him. I’d offer to work the front desk when he was in the office and volunteer to escort the armed officers who made the money drops.
One day, I came to work in a dress. I could feel him leering at me when I walked in the office. I told my co-worker I was feeling generous and offered to sit at the front desk all day. But he was studying for an exam and needed to sit there so he could read in between guests.
Later that day, our boss asked me to go grab supplies from the closet. When I walked in, he entered behind me. He told me I deserved to know what a real man could do. He pushed me down, pulled up my skirt, and placed his head between my legs.
Fear, shame and helplessness gripped my body. He commented on how he’d been waiting for this. I closed my eyes, and after what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only a few minutes, he stopped and walked out of the room. Afraid he’d come back, I left, too, and ran to the restroom.
Later that afternoon, he walked up behind me and said he could still smell me on his mustache and he couldn’t wait until I wore a dress again.
I blamed myself. I thought of all the ways I could have prevented it from happening. Plus, I hadn’t complained about the office conversations, so I must have somehow made him think it was OK. He was my manager, and I felt powerless. Who would believe me? So I did the only thing I thought I could do: From that day until I left, I wore pants to the office.
Back then, I didn’t consider what had happened to me to be assault. I didn’t know there were avenues I could have pursued that could have helped me. I never considered that other women in the building might have similar experiences. I didn’t realize that my manager was abusing his power.
Power is the common thread in these stories. Power is the reason Matt Lauer went so long without women speaking out. Power is why Terry Crews’ assailant is back at work as a high-profile talent agent. Power is why many other people are afraid to come forward.
Today I’m a human resources professional. My responsibilities include being an advocate for employees who may be harassed in the workplace. I take my job seriously because I know what it is like to feel helpless and powerless in these situations. With the rise of sexual harassment cases in the entertainment and media industry, it is easy to overlook what happens in regular office environments, the hospitality industry and, yes, even the security office.
If you experience harassment in the workplace, it is imperative that you tell someone. Find a leader you trust, talk to your HR person; or, if you want to remain anonymous, most companies have a confidential line you can call.
I know it is scary to speak out, but it is necessary to hold these people, and the companies that employ them, accountable.