When I was 13, I got my first real job and my first taste of sexual harassment. I was in the back office being interviewed by a 30ish-year-old man by the name of Bill. His first name is burned on my brain. I don’t remember his last name or the name of the restaurant. I can only recall bits and pieces–like flashbacks in a movie. Wire racks stuffed with linens, kitchen supplies stacked in every corner, and a desk spilling over with paperwork and receipts. I remember the phone ringing and, rather than letting it go to voicemail, him answering.
I remember that conversation with the same clarity as I remember his first name.
He told the caller he’d get back to them because he was in the middle of an interview. But before he hung up, he said, “I finally hired one with tits.”
No. I’m not kidding. I’m not making this up. And I didn’t mistake what he said. I was a 13-year-old girl who didn’t know what to do. I may have told my friends or not. I know I didn’t tell my mom. I had been the subject of men’s “affection” for at least a year and, in hindsight, I recognize that their behavior was normalized.
Two months after I was hired (yes, I stupidly took the job), I ran into him on a Friday night when I was at the mall with my girlfriends. He was drunk and insisted we come with him and his buddies. I declined and told him I had a curfew. Ignoring my excuse, he told me that if I didn’t come with them, he would fire me. He joked about the incident with his friends as mine ushered me away. We nervously laughed as we found the bus station and made our way home.
The next day, I discovered he wasn’t kidding. While he didn’t outright fire me, he excluded me from the schedule for the foreseeable future.
As I write this, I’m reminded of the ways that young boys operated in the same vein. When I was in 4th grade, about 9 years old, a boy in my class named Scott gathered the other boys around to vote on who would be honored with the nickname “Tits” (yes, the same delicately descriptive word for breasts… very classy). It was down to me and my friend Rene. We both had barely-there breast buds that neither of us had really noticed before. But now we did.
The message was cataloged alongside other messages about attractiveness and appearances (the same boy would rate girls on a scale of 1-10 and announce his findings at recess).
Clearly, Scott and Bill had a perverse view of women and girls, but what’s sickening is that both of them had other guys involved who didn’t speak up. Both of them had friends who laughed along rather than trying to stop it.
I witnessed this over and over, the lead boy behaving badly while the pack egged him on with laughter or stood in silence. And this is why the Kavanaugh hearing was brutal and his confirmation was devastating.
I’m not a political person. Really. You vote your way, I’ll vote mine. So when I was so upset about his hearing, I was thrown. This isn’t my thing; I generally am the “move along” type. But I can’t move along. Not with this.
After spending much of the weekend processing my feelings, I realized I wasn’t angry about a very conservative judge being on the Supreme Court. I was angry about our customs and culture. About the Boys Club of America and its dismissive attitude toward women. About women as props in TV shows and movies. The trouble with my viewpoint is that you have to experience sexual harassment, disrespect, or fear firsthand. Men, overall, cannot relate. And I would venture that many women can’t relate either–not because they haven’t experienced discrimination, but because they don’t realize they have.
When the #metoo movement erupted in 2017, I nodded my head in silence, mentally recalling the ways I’ve been groped, ogled, or flat-out assaulted. The numerous times my work wasn’t taken seriously, I was talked over in meetings, or I wasn’t allowed in a meeting in the first place.
In 2000, I worked at the startup Webvan. The VP of marketing was supportive of all abilities. He didn’t care what color you were, what size, or what gender. Just do the work. He was a petite Jewish man from the heart of New York who would steamroll over you if you didn’t move fast enough. I adored him. And I didn’t realize how important it was to have a male boss that supported you.
When he was replaced by an executive from General Electric, I caught on quickly. Greg embodied what is wrong with many workplaces. He smoked cigars with the boys, gave them window offices, and treated women as worker bees. When I called him out on the new seating arrangement, pointing out the men all had views of the pond while the women were stuffed into cubicles in the center of the room, he said, “It is what it is.”
There was no justifiable reason to assign the seating the way he did. It was within his control 100%. But he didn’t care. I could have escalated the issue, but the last time I spoke up about workplace injustice, I was moved to another city.
Two years earlier, while working at Latham & Watkins in downtown San Francisco, I was sexually harassed by my boss. He made advances toward me during my review. DURING MY REVIEW. When I reported it, I was promptly transferred to Menlo Park. Two months later, he got a promotion.
This shit is real.
From the time we are born, we are conditioned to see the world in the way our culture has deemed appropriate. And our conditioning says that men and women are not equal.
If we were, not only would we see more women in positions of power, but we wouldn’t hear stories about girls learning to endure catcalls and unwanted innuendo at the age of 13. Teenage girls having to learn to defend themselves from drunk male coeds. Adult women checking the clock before setting out for a run to make sure they’ll be home before dark. That’s just scratching the surface. But I’m sure you get my point.
On the same day as the Kavanaugh hearing, I received an email from Ticketmaster that highlighted live shows in my area. There were 20 men headliners and ONE woman. And that woman was Michelle Obama. I was enraged. Not because this was new, but because it was still happening.
How is it possible in 2018 to have ONE female headliner? Someone somewhere didn’t search hard enough. Or, more likely, no one noticed.
For years, I counted the female names when the credits rolled after a movie. It was a freak obsession of mine that I had to let go because it was like punching myself in the face. I knew what the final score would be, but I kept counting… in part to justify my inner rage, but also hoping to be proven wrong.
This is our culture. We did this. But we can undo it, too.
How? It’s not easy, and change is slow.
First, we need to check ourselves.
How am I perpetuating the problem? Am I speaking up, or do I tolerate what I see and hear because it “is what it is”?
At so many times and in so many ways, I’ve just shaken my head and kept my eyes averted because the truth is painful. It’s hard to stand up for what’s right. Women have an especially hard time because we’re seen as weaker, so if we see something unjust, it can be exceptionally difficult to say something.
Fear stops men, too: “What if they retaliate or turn on me?”
But the shocking thing? We desperately hope our kids are doing what we don’t. At school or on the playground, we want them to stand up to bullies, befriend the new kids, and be non-judgemental.
Moving forward without getting pulled down in the drama of today requires us parents (dads, get on board!) to teach our children more than we currently do. We need to teach them more than simply “stand up to bullies.”
Let’s take this to the next level. Teach our kids more about compassion and passion. Help them to identify injustices (in the home, in their movies and shows, and in the world) and give them tools to do something about it. Words to use. People to tell.
This is a chance for us to talk more specifically about inequalities related to race, gender, and sexual orientation.
I’ve admittedly failed at this. Sure, I bought books about Barack Obama, Jackie Robinson, and Rosa Parks. I feel confident that my kids know judging someone based on skin color is unacceptable and unnecessary. But they don’t really know why. I could do a much better job of explaining the darkness of racism and sexism. Part of me doesn’t want to believe it’s true. And another part of me hopes it’s on it’s way to healing and by the time my kids are off to college, it won’t be an issue.
In a way, I’ve been protecting my kids from the vile truth about our society… but I’ve also been protecting myself. I don’t want to believe that my daughter is going to have to fight the same fight I did. And I certainly don’t want to entertain the thought that my son might be the next Brock Turner or Brett Kavanaugh.
Pervasive sexism isn’t only harmful to women. Our society also tells men what it means to be a man. Young boys get this message loud and clear, too.
A few months ago, I excitedly watched the first episode of CHiPs, which aired in 1977. Waiting to relive my youth, I curled up in my chair and turned my phone off. But this wasn’t the trip down memory lane I anticipated. Rather, it was an eye-opening view of how I was trained to expect sexual advances from men. In one scene, the officers (all men) are being debriefed by the sergeant and a female officer walks in to give him a file. Catcalls erupt from nearly all the men and the sergeant tells them to calm down as the woman smiles and rolls her eyes in a “come on, guys!” kind of way.
It doesn’t take a psychologist to point out what’s wrong with that program. Young children watching the show learned that catcalls are normal, acceptable behavior. And the sergeant’s casual attitude reinforces the lesson because he doesn’t correct the actions. Finally, the woman’s flirty smile says the eye roll isn’t real and she’s secretly okay with the “appreciation.”
That 1.5-minute scene pretty much encapsulates my young experiences: Boy makes comment. No one speaks up. Girl accepts comment and tells no one.
We are stuck in a cycle that must be derailed.
The most impactful way for us parents to create lasting change is to disrupt the pattern of acceptance.
This requires us to do more than teach our children how to identify what is wrong (sexism, racism, ableism, etc…). It’s time we kicked over the rock and help our kids understand what’s underneath.
Dads: do your own work. How are you helping to sustain the problem? Do you hold back rather than step in? Do you show empathy and compassion for others around you? How about toward your own children? Do you encourage feelings beyond anger and pride? I highly recommend following and reading The Good Men Project.
Moms: have each others’ backs. Create a community specifically aimed at raising compassionate children. Gather the troops and meet over coffee to have deep discussions over everything from video games to cell phones to first dates.
As much the entire Kavanaugh circus has crushed my soul, it is my fervent belief that his confirmation will inspire a new generation of mothers, fathers, and role models to break the cycle.
Do the work, people. It doesn’t have to be “it is what it is” for our kids.
Parent like their future depends on it.