At 19, a married 42-year-old man with children slipped me a hotel-room key.
At 21, a married 35-year-old man told me that my dress looked good, but would look even better on the floor.
At 25, another man repeatedly told me how much fun it would be if we would just hook up.
I was pre-conditioned to believe that in some way I asked for this. By speaking, standing or wearing something nice.
What none of these men were aware of was that although I loved to wear clothing that made me feel comfortable and confident about myself, I did not have the mental, emotional and physical capacity to engage in the random, lustful workplace flings they suggested. This was not something I ever thought I'd have to explain to anyone at 8:30 in the morning, particularly at the office.
What I wanted was to build a career.
Being social with everyone came naturally to me.
To me, this did not suggest being open to sexual encounters. And neither did anything I wore.
I see a confident woman
How did I see myself in my early 20s?
What I saw was an asset to her company. I had passion, talent and knowledge, had a unique perspective on problem-solving and an incredible desire to achieve. This was what I thought about every day when I went to work. Only this. Those who knew me well also knew my commitment.
Did I ever view myself as the "office vixen?" Never.
I saw a confident woman that felt as assured about her physical appearance as she did her intellect.
Were there days when the clothes I wore were more fitted? Absolutely, and I felt great.
Were there days that I wore lace-trimmed garments? Absolutely, in a tasteful and professional manner.
Have I ever worn a shorter skirt? Absolutely. But only in the fall and winter, paired with tights and knee-high boots.
And if I ever wore a sleeveless top to the workplace, it was always paired with a cardigan. To this day, at 38, this remains unchanged.
It took me 20 years to accept my body, after loathing it, fighting it and hiding it. Now, when I looked in the mirror every morning, I saw a confident woman that felt as assured about her physical appearance as she did her intellect. I saw a woman who would be more productive in meetings because she didn't fear being ridiculed for not looking good. Having confidence in both my mind and body helped be a more active participant. I didn't shy away anymore.
The problem, for me, wasn't how I dressed at work. It was what I didn't say.
I laughed off the sexualized comments, the business cards passed my way in case I wanted to have "some fun." I was scared of putting my career at risk so I would feel pressured to tactfully and respectfully shrug off advances from my male co-workers. That's right: I felt the need to be respectful in rejecting them to ensure there would be no impact to my job.
What happened when I finally spoke up?
When I was 26, married for a few years now, a gentleman made a comment that wasn't particularly tasteful. I went to his superior, who I deemed a friend. I hoped that someone would talk to this individual about appropriate conduct in the workplace. I wasn't seeking an apology or reprimand. But what I didn't expect to happen was to be made aliability.
What happened next was that the gentleman ceased to speak to me, whether in passing or for business. I often found myself separated from the rest of the team. I was reprimanded for wearing outfits like the one near the top of this blog. (I was told the eye shadow was too blue. Yes, too blue.)
We have to understand clearly that this isn't a conversation about fashion or clothing.
Men wear tight-fitting pants that leave little to the imagination. They wear fitted shirts showing the curvature of their bodies. They wear plunging V-necks displaying their chiseled chests. Do they do this because they're askingfor your unwanted sexual attention, or because they feel confident in the way they look? Women should be able to feel confident in the same way without fear of being harassed, labelled or ostracized.
When women are subject to this double standard, we must be able to feel like we can speak up about it without risk, fear or labelling of any sort.
My hope for young women emerging now in the workplace, and those that will follow, is that you feel strong enough, supported enough and free enough to be able to say "Stop!"
That the career goals and ambitions that mean most to you never feel at risk because of the actions of others.
What this is a conversation about is the importance of clear, direct and open two-way conversation without risk of reprimand.
- We do not take without asking, that is stealing.
- We do not strike another human, that is violence.
- We do not infringe on anyone’s safety or freedom, that is inhumane.
- We do not punish without merit out of fear, that is injustice.
As women in the workplace today, we are breaking down many barriers and putting the blocks in place to truly live our lives freely and without fear of consequence, in the workplace, in our wants and desires, in any way that we can imagine.
If I could go back in time, I would tell anyone who feels compromised or subjected to a similar double standard to be open and honest with their manager, to set up a proper meeting with the appropriate individuals involved, and not stay quiet or laugh it off. If the response you receive isn’t suitable and doesn’t lead to a healthier and more equal working environment, speak to the next supervisor.
I envision we work towards creating environments where our careers are free to flourish without having to think about what we wear, what we look like, or the perceptions of others. I envision the opportunity to create successful careers that are built on the merit of our work and ethics and that we never feel the need to defend our clothing to achieve this success.
They say clothes do not make the man. They’ve never made a woman, either.
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