The story below is about a woman’s experience in the workplace and undoubtedly mirrors the dilemmas faced by women in general. It’s a first-hand telling of the kind of sexist incidents that can affect our work environments, and a description of what kind of support and accountability that women need to overcome these circumstances.
It’s Tuesday and one of my supervisors hosts a training class that I’m set to deliver lunch for. Entering with sandwiches, chips and cookies aplenty, I notice how hot it is in the conference room. As I take off my sweater, one of many layers, my supervisor announces to the room: “And here’s your entertainment!” The moment moves in slow motion yet happens so quickly. I hear crickets and see blank stares. I’m floored. One moment I’m delivering a delicious lunch and the next moment I’m being marked as a stripper. Objectified. I’m unsure what to do, say, or how to react. I look over at the other participants, my fellow colleagues. A couple of them chuckle uncomfortably, one walks out (not sure if it’s in response to what’s happened), others just sit quietly. I sit there in disbelief and eat my sandwich, cringing inside. But his comment lingers for the remainder of the day. It keeps me up that night.
It’s Wednesday and I’ve had time to process my supervisor’s comment. I don’t realize how much of an impact it has on me until today. I’m taken aback. I’m embarrassed and humiliated. But most importantly, I know I have to confront him and the situation. When I arrive to work and see my supervisor, I’m immediately uncomfortable. In other words, I want to punch him. I decide instead that it’s time to share what’s happened with my shop steward, our union’s onsite go-to person for any workplace issues. I’m ashamed and afraid to speak out about what’s happened for fear of not being taken seriously. But in the first bright spot in my week, my shop steward is completely supportive and sympathetic! As we talk she creates a space that allows me to express my discomfort and frustration without judgment. She offers advice and suggests next steps but ultimately leaves me with the autonomy to create my own resolution. She lets me decide what’s best for me and reassures me that I have her support no matter what. I realize for the first time that my union and shop steward are truly here to protect me and help ensure that my workplace is safe and productive.
After crying it out with my shop steward, I pull myself together and prepare to confront my supervisor. I’m very nervous. Trembling actually. I ask to speak with him in his office, handy notepad in hand, shop steward by my side. She explains that I’m requesting an informal meeting to address a concern. Like me, my supervisor has the right to a witness but chooses not to have one. I appreciate the gesture. I shut the door behind me, sit down, and dive right in. I begin by describing what happened so that there is no confusion about why we’re here. I tell him how disrespectful and inappropriate his comment was, especially coming from my direct supervisor. I make sure to emphasize that people, especially women (like his wife and daughter) get harassed every day and that one place we should have control over it is in the workplace.
And much to my surprise, he’s very receptive to my concerns. The look on his face tells me that my words resonate with him. He recognizes that he not only disrespected me, but also hurt me. Rather than go on the defense, he expresses his gratitude for my work ethic and our work relationship. He apologizes almost immediately, acknowledging his mistake and taking full accountability. He commits to being more conscious and aware in the workplace. Contrary to my initial fears, he makes me feel heard and validated. We both recognize this as a learning opportunity to improve our work environment. He thanks me for being courageous enough to speak up about it. Shortly after our discussion, we make our way to the training class, now in it’s second day, that heard his initial comment. He apologizes to the entire group, holding himself publicly accountable for his mistake and the effect it had on me. It was a powerful moment.