It seems like a million years since I lived through the misery of sexism in the workplace, but I still struggle mightily with the way I handled it.
Did I deal with it with dignity, or was I a coward who left a big pile of crap for the next woman to deal with.
It’s hard to believe that Chrissie Swan, so smart, so funny, so confident could have been bullied by anyone, ever, but that’s the take home message from her most recent column for me. She detailed her submission to sexism earlier in her career and it reminded me of the fact that it happens to all sorts of women, every day, who say nothing and soldier on because they are still so scared that they will be labeled the troublemakers if they complain.
Chrissie is a woman I always think of as so much stronger than me. I’ve asked for and received great advice from her on more than one thorny issue, and yet she was unable to care for herself in the face of a sexist work environment. That revelation made me so sad for all the other great women living through it right now.
When you’re in the middle of it, you feel like a “stronger” woman would stand up for herself and your failure to do so is just another blow to your battered self-esteem. At least, that’s how I felt when I wasn’t speaking up.
I thought I’d be outcast in the workplace, I thought my day-to-day life would become a nightmare, and I thought ultimately I might lose my job, my career, everything I’d worked so hard to build, so I concentrated on coping. I spent all my money on holidays, took my anti-depressants and dreamed of a better future while accepting that there was nothing I could do about the conditions I faced every day at work.
Oh sure, I made tentative steps toward complaining, but I was put back in my place pretty quick. Told I’d “never get along with everyone I worked with,” leaving me in no doubt that the porn in the office, constant hard-core sex talk and bursts of verbal abuse were my problems to deal with. “Just part of life,” I was told, breezily by a man in a nice suit, in another state.
A friend once told me, “When you hate someone, you are their prisoner.” I was hating all day long, a physical and emotional wreck because of it.
The troubling part is that I’m not sure I wouldn’t have ended up the loser if I’d really raised a racket back then. I wish I could encourage other women with a great ending to my story about my successful rise to the top and the perpetrators’ miserable sink to the bottom, about some kind of justice, but I’m afraid I can’t because that’s not what happened. I can only assume the environment I gingerly complained about all those years ago remains as vile a misogynist paradise as ever it was. So how can I possibly comfort or encourage anyone living through a similar situation today?
Well, I can tell them what I wish I’d done differently. I wish I’d found a good counselor instead of taking the medication, I wish I’d talked to women higher up in the company instead of yelling at my husband about things that weren’t his fault, and I wish I’d recognized my power and escaped a lot earlier than I did. Easier said than done though, considering I was spending nights agonizing over the very core of my personality, wondering how I’d gotten this far in life as such a horrible, boring, ugly person. I wish I’d phoned a friend.
As Chrissie said in her column, “sexism preys on the insecure,” and it compounds insecurity too, which makes it very difficult to see reality. Seeing reality is really what self-esteem is all about – the reality that I am a human being who deserves to feel respected and equal to all others in every situation regardless of my gender, age, race, sexuality, appearance or beliefs. It took me a very long time and a lot of reading and meditation to come to that conclusion, and then, rightly or wrongly, I stopped complaining and just zenned it out, let it wash over me until I was able to make my escape.
So there was no justice, I didn’t affect any great cultural shift anywhere outside of my own self and I didn’t pave the way for other women, but I survived and now I live a happy life surrounded by people I love. I don’t know if I handled the situation heroically, but I do know I’m no one’s prisoner anymore.
Have you ever been a victim of sexism or bullying in the workplace? How did you deal?