When the video was leaked of our current president using the word that inspired hundreds of thousands of women worldwide to don pink knit caps and take to the streets demanding equality AGAIN, it also stirred countless frank and often-painful conversations. When it was recently revealed that film mogul Harvey Weinstein has sexually harassed and assaulted multiple women over the course of several decades and he claimed it was because he “came of age in the 60’s and 70’s when rules of behavior were different,” eyes collectively rolled in offices across the country. Because we know. We’ve been there. We’ve lived it.
Sit down with a group of women who have spent any time in the workforce and you’ll likely hear countless stories that impacted the trajectory of a career, caused untold stress and anxiety or haunting experiences that sat in the back of the women’s minds for years as dormant seeds of self doubt.
At first our now President’s misogynistic language on the campaign trail was simply appalling and seemingly disqualifying, yet he continued gaining momentum while his supporters dismissed his parlance as “locker room talk.” For years Weinstein’s actions in business “meetings” and on the festival circuit have been a whispered shadowy secret in Hollywood. But for many women, the trauma of past encounters resurfaces when these men’s actions are made public, and feelings of degradation reemerge along with disgust and outrage at the apparently now acceptable political incorrectness of our current President’s blatant sexism. When stories like Weinstein’s and Bill Cosby’s finally come to light, women come out of the shadows with their own dark experiences. They share stories of rejected advances that “coincidentally” coincided with missed promotions, accounts of lewd comments and groping, casting couch sagas, and the conversations with people throughout their careers who disregarded their concerns saying they were “just too sensitive.”
As I navigated the early years of my career, I recall detours around certain cubicles to avoid pats on the rear end and the occasional vulgar or demeaning comments I’d laugh off because I didn’t know how else to handle them. Colleagues dismissed such remarks as jokes saying “boys will be boys,” or declaring “you better grow thicker skin if you want to make it in this business.” In one such instance, I wish I’d been able to crawl out of my skin and be anywhere but in that conference room.
It was “Gabe’s” birthday and as was common for colleague birthdays, word spread around the marketing department that we were gathering in the conference room at 2pm to mark the occasion. Because it was his 40th, a top-secret surprise was being planned, and an envelope for donations along with a card made the rounds of the office. I was twenty-four and cash poor, but I slid $5 dollars into the envelope filled mostly with $10s and $20s, thinking my money might better be spent on gas, but Gabe was a funny guy and I wanted to be a team player.
Come 2pm, as people filed into the long, windowless conference room, I found myself diagonally across from the door, as people circled the ashwood conference table and Gabe was urged to take a middle seat. Women were out-numbered five to one among the two-dozen team members packing the room as someone told Gabe to close his eyes and the cake arrived. Two giant chocolate breast-shaped mounds with nipple-molded dark chocolate candle toppers were placed in front of the birthday boy as everyone launched into song. I looked around the stuffy room trying to lock eyes with a female colleague. Did they think it was funny or odd that the cake seemed more appropriate for a bachelor party than an office celebration?
As I assessed the situation, someone pressed play on the boom box adjacent to the Beta machine and Bell Biv DeVoes’ Poison echoed across the room as a nurse appeared in the doorway announcing she had the antidote and proceeded to dance her way around the table until she got to Gabe. She feigned an examination and the hoots from my co-workers grew as she unbuttoned her crisp white uniform, which quickly dropped to her waist revealing her sheer white bra and clearly exposed the red sequined flower-shaped pasties over her nipples.
There I was stuck in a corner, and as much as I’d rather be on the phone with our crankiest client or overseeing a 500-page fax, I couldn’t extricate myself from my spot by the fake fichus. My face felt hot as I imagined crawling under the table toward the door rather than scooting past the butt-patter from the sales department, ducking cheering arms holding out dollar bills including the VP of my department in the testosterone-filled room where I was more accustomed to stuffing press packets. It was in this same room where many of these same men ignored my ideas, sometimes later rephrasing them and succeeding in securing approval from upper management.
I caught the eye of a friend from production as the music segued to Bobby Brown’s Humpin’ Around. I thought she mirrored my discomfort, but in an instant she was laughing too, as the nurse’s dress dropped to the floor and our office entertainer began grinding on the lap of the birthday boy in a candy apple thong, one leg draped over his shoulder with her black stiletto heel dangerously close to piercing the ribcage of Ernie from accounting.
The three-song set ended with Def Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar on Me, during which a secretary managed to pull the cake to the far end of the table and my attention was drawn away from the smirks of the birthday boy to watching Margaret in her floral print dress and fake pearls navigate slicing into the perfectly formed mounds of sweet boob like a skilled surgeon. The stripper slithered out of the room as cake plates were passed around and Def Leppard sang “Sometime, anytime, sugar me sweet, little miss innocent sugar me.” And I noticed in the doorway, a man putting a robe over the woman’s shoulders as the manila envelope, holding some of my gas money, was handed to him by a balding sales manager.
For weeks I couldn’t look male colleagues in the eye, and whether it was true or not, I felt like they viewed me differently. I dressed more conservatively, sensing any sign of my breasts would conjure memories of the cake and the stripper. I felt like I was in on a dirty little secret and meetings in that conference room took on a different feeling.
Indeed the revolting actions of Weinstein and vile comments like those made by our current President have inspired heated conversations among girlfriends who have had powerful men attempt to assert their dominance like it is acceptable behavior. I wonder if any progress has been made since I was twenty-four in the 1990s. Sure HR Departments are armed with sexual harassment policies and EEOC guidelines that have become more detailed over the past few decades. But when, merely 11 years ago, the former host of The Apprentice describes making moves on women and grabbing them between their legs claiming “..when you’re a star they let you do it…you can do anything,” and then he gets elected to the highest office in our country, I am concerned that those who laugh that off and say “boys will be boys” or “you need a sense of humor when listening to the comments or tweets by OUR PRESIDENT” are returning our country to a time when inappropriate comments in the workplace are accepted as jokes.
When Harvey Weinstein says he’s seeking help for his “sexual addiction”, but it is clear he has been a decades-long predator whose actions were largely ignored because of fear of retaliation and loss of invitations into exclusive parties and onto private yachts. I am all the more grateful to the women who are stepping forward and tell their truths and I hope it emboldens young women in less glamorous workplaces to recognize the lines that shouldn’t be crossed and to say something when they are.
And I am haunted and wish I had taken a stand. I’ve long wondered if the managers who didn’t speak out at the presentation of the chocolate breast cake and coordinating stripper ever realized that I likely saved their careers by not coming forward. I question if I inadvertently enabled them to continue floating through their careers on the misconception that women enjoy being objectified or simply not caring either way. Do they, too, blame the era in which they came of age? Did they cast their votes in favor of misogyny?