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My “ME” Movement

Is mutual respect a gender issue?

I had a very blessed childhood. As an only child, my days where filled with undivided attention.  My mother was a stay at home mom, who worked before she married, and cherished every moment of motherhood. She was from a generation that married young, and started families soon thereafter.  However, she did not marry young, but rather in her mid-thirties, and gave birth to me as that decade was nearing a close.

She was a very strong, compassionate woman, with a mindset far ahead of her time; a feminist before the label was coined, before a movement took root. She believed in universal respect, and most importantly self-respect. She taught me to stick up for myself, to pick my battles wisely, and when identified, to never back down.

I remember my first “me” moment very clearly. I was around four years old, maybe four and a half; how I miss those days when we counted every passing month as a milestone, rather than a clock ticking away at our youth. My mom and I were in a store nearby; as I wandered through the toy section eyeing what would hopefully be my newest addition, a girl of about 11 wandered by, reached down and snatched the turquoise and silver bracelet that adorned my tiny wrist. She casually walked away, and I did not utter a word.

I walked over to my mom and told her what happened. While she briefly looked around the store to spot the pre-pubescent thief, she chose to channel her attention to me, and on the lesson soon to be learned, one far more valuable than any bracelet. That was the moment that I realized the world, with all its beauty and fascination, as seen through the eyes of an innocent child, was not always a pretty place. I would need to protect and stand up for myself, I would become a mini warrior.

I was also blessed with a fantastic dad, who loved having a little girl, a daughter he could have tea parties with, and watch football and hockey games with on TV. In his eyes girls could do anything, gender was no barrier. When he took me shopping, he did not steer me to the pretty pink baubles, but rather allowed me to lead the way. One Saturday, I led him down the aisle that housed the nurse and doctor toy kits. I picked up the nurses set, and asked if I could have it.  He smiled, and said, “sure, but you know you could pick the doctor’s kit, girls can be doctors too.”

As I grew the potential battles the world presented, and I could elect to tackle, took on increased meaning and consequence. In eighth grade, one homework assignment consisted of writing letters to congressman and senators opposing abortion (I went to Catholic school.) I was not sure how I felt about the assignment, and more so how did I feel about this issue? I was just coming into my womanhood, and I was conflicted, first a monthly cycle that was ruining my life, and now this!  Mom explained that I needed to do the assignment, but we could also write letters to representatives supporting a woman’s right to choose. I remember this not sitting well with me, was this a compromise on my beliefs in order to appease my Catholic institution? This was my first lesson in conceding, and I did not like it.

Next, came the adolescent boys with their peering eyes and stares. Looking back, most of it was a part of growing up and becoming sexually aware, but some of those boys said the wrong things, and pushed the lines of decency a little too far. Now came what would soon be my MO, warn them first, and then take the necessary action to make the situation right. This mantra did result in one boy being slapped, a meeting with the principle, protesting parents, and assorted episodes of drama, but I did not care. This mini warrior was growing up.

It is hard to ascertain whether I was lucky, or I just set the stage very well, but I went through those adolescent, high school, and college years making friends of both genders, and having healthy relationships along the way. This father’s daughter demanded respect and I received it. Those males that did not live up to my expectations were soon issued their walking papers, and I never looked back. They had no power over me, at least not yet.

Now, enter the workplace, that ever fascinating human lab experiment that fuses people from all walks of life together into one space, and expects them to all play nice!  In those early years, my bosses were men, most of whom I had good relationships with, of course there were those who much like those adolescent boys crossed the line, but usually a long-cold stare from me was all that was needed to steer them back to professional behavior.

Then came a defining moment. About fifteen years into my career, I found myself working as a communications professional at a non-profit standard-setting organization. There was an even mix of men and woman of many diverse and international backgrounds. One man, who at first was a work friend, crossed a line. I was sure I could handle it much in the same way that always worked, warm him, and tell him to stop. But he did not. The harassment continued.

Several months of on and off inappropriate, threatening behavior transpired. He did not attempt to conceal his disgusting words and actions, but rather flaunted them in front of the CFO, who turned his back, and closed his office door. Colleagues heard, but turned away. My boss laughed at his crude remarks, and did nothing when he attempted to physically block me from walking down the hall. SHE did nothing. She, who had spoken openly of sisterhood, not only was silent, but encouraged his behavior.

Just like that little girl, who first met that young thief many years before, this warrior had never encountered a foe like this before. But, I knew this was a battle I had to take on, I could not back down. I reported all of this to Human Resources. I was told that I may have misunderstood my perpetrator’s intentions, perhaps he was only kidding, and I took it the wrong way. I was told this over and over by the head of HR, and several other mid-management personnel, all of whom were women. I felt betrayed by my own gender, who for whatever the reason chose not to protect me. I was truly alone, until one day a colleague of mine, did the right thing and spoke up. HE came to my aid, and finally those in power had to listen.

My harasser was finally reprimanded and fired. I left the company almost a year after his dismissal, because I could no longer take the harassment my boss now directed toward me. I had become her enemy. This was no longer a battle I wanted to continue. I made a choice to move on and prosper, which this sage warrior did! 

When I look back, I refuse to see this episode as a gender issue, but rather an issue of mutual and self-respect, and in this case the lack thereof. 

I have no idea why those female colleagues chose to not back me up. Perhaps they themselves were victims of those in higher power, felt intimidated, and did not have the strength to do the right thing until a brave eyewitness forced their hand.

But, I do wonder if that colleague who came forward were a woman, would her truthful account have carried the same weight? 

About the Author: Diane Bruno is a licensed Funeral Director/Embalmer in the states of CT and MA. She is also a Corporate Communications professional specializing in Internal Communications. Diane is an Empath who loves to write on topics that touch the soul.

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