What’s a Girl Boss to do When It’s Not Just Lunch? – Part I
I endured various forms of sexual harassment during the early part of my career. I have decided to share one such incident here with you.
I was a bright-eyed first year associate at a California law firm. Early on, the partners poured me a giant glass of Kool-Aid and I happily drank it down. The sweet beverage hit the spot. I could afford my student loans as well as excessive amounts of retail therapy (which is a good thing because I needed a lot of it)! I worked long hours and had dreams of making partner at said firm. At the time, I was too innocent to suspect the depravity that lingered just below the firm’s good marketing. However, I soon learned that the main ingredient in the Kool-Aid wasn’t electrolytes as advertised. It was poison that would slowly dampen my sweet soul. (Sorry to be all doomsday from the get-go, but stick with me.)
One day, I got an email from a partner named Mark* who I’d seen around the office from time to time. He was in his late 50’s (old enough to be my father), an expert in a complex area of law, powerful, rich (just ask him), and brilliant (again, just ask him). The email simply read, “Can I take you to lunch?” Mark was in luck because if my schedule allowed, I would always yes to those who outranked me. Such is life in the deferential world of law firms.
I viewed the email as a good opportunity given that I was in the market for a powerful advocate to facilitate my rise through the firm’s ranks. Perhaps Mark had heard good things about my work and wanted to be my mentor. Before our lunch, I studied Mark’s online bio like it was a job interview, tucking away smart questions for the inevitable lulls in our conversation. Example: “How did you land [insert Fortune 500 company] as your client? That’s so impressive [and so on and so forth, blah, blah, blah, just shoot me already].
I made my way to the lobby where our coworkers milled about like ants in a particularly high performing colony. I spotted Mark and extended my hand to greet him. To my surprise, he said, “Hi, sweetie.” Before I knew it, his face was getting closer to mine. Caught off-guard, I turned my cheek ever-so-slightly at the last second. His lips grazed the corner of my mouth and I stood stunned, thoughts racing through my mind. Why would he think it was ok to do that? Did he misread my body language? Can I gracefully bow out now? No, that would be too awkward.
Determined to turn the encounter around, I pressed onward. But before exiting the lobby, I noticed a few associates shooting disgusted glances my way. I can only imagine what they were thinking. Look at her, trying to sleep her way to the top. Then, I was stunned to see a partner in his 60’s wink at Mark, who in response, smiled slyly and placed his hand firmly on the small of my back.
We walked a block to a tiny restaurant filled with more coworkers. I prayed the next 50 minutes would fly by uneventfully. The lobby incident was mortifying and I couldn’t stomach much more unwelcome touching from this self-serving freak. The hostess showed us to a small table in the middle of the restaurant and I mentally cursed her for not taking pity on me and putting us in the back. Mark pulled out my chair, but I gently told him, “Thanks, but I’ve got it. I need to take my jacket off before I sit down.”
He replied, “Oh, I’ll help you with that.”
In the airiest possible tone I could muster, I said, “That’s ok, I prefer to do it myself.” He didn’t take no for an answer and stepped behind me, slipping my jacket over my shoulders and down my back, resting it on my chair. Oh. My. Gawd. Does he think this is a date? How could he have overlooked my sizeable wedding ring (as well as his own)?
The rest of the lunch was thankfully a bore, but the damage was done. Again, he guided me through the lobby with his hand in the small of my back. I frantically pushed the “up” button in the elevator, hurried off at my floor, and thanked him (for what, I wasn’t quite sure). I was flooded with anxiety. What weird signal was I giving off that made him try to kiss me on the mouth, touch me, call me “sweetie,” and take off an article of my clothing?
So began a two-year endeavor to avoid Mark. When I couldn’t avoid him, I was attempting to make the “friendship” work because he was so powerful. If I turned him down for too many lunches his feelings might get hurt, or worse, he might get mad and retaliate against me.
Hindsight being 20/20, I realized the only thing Mark found promising about me was my breasts. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only powerful man at the firm who would try to make himself look better by having me attached to his side. I never reported their behavior for fear that lodging a complaint would negatively affect my career. Would it be easier for the firm to get rid of the junior “complainer” associate or the harassing senior partners who brought boatloads of capital into the firm? Exactly.
I was a young associate ill-equipped to deal with this situation, but I hope you can learn from my naiveté. Check back next week to read Part II, the solutions to this story, “4 Practical Tips for Dealing with Creeps in the Workplace.”
Do you think this type of bad behavior is decreasing or increasing? Let me know why you feel that way in the comments.
*Name changed to protect the not-so-innocent.
“Chelsea Chatsworth” is more than just a pretty face and a pen name, and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.