“Divorce sucks,” I complained. The day was sunny and bright as Carl and I shared a ride together to an offsite company meeting. But the tectonics of my shape-shifting post-marital world were leaving me balancing pretty precariously between the euphoria of a chance to start over at age 40 and deep sorrow at having my dreams stolen from me while I had been blissfully, mindlessly building a family (or so I thought).
Carl was among those work colleagues who supported me like a big brother or sister throughout those crazy days. “Hey,” he said, “don’t forget about taking care of yourself in all this; you’ve lost so much weight.” Indeed, I had shed 30 pounds in 3 months without even trying. (Silver linings?) I wasn’t concerned about that. More than anything I needed moral support, a sense that I was doing okay juggling work and single motherhood. I physically ached for the pain my daughters were feeling as part of the separation from their dad. I welcomed brief respites like this with snippets of adult conversation – reminding me that I was still a real person all by myself, that my marriage didn’t define me, that there was something left in the rubble of my life.
What’s more, I was constantly being thrown into what I thought of as the “deep end of the ocean” — that mysterious depth of business where technical terms are bandied about in small talk. My dominant right-sided brain kept whirling with new input as I tried to force logic into an otherwise intuitive mind. It was so much change – personally, professionally, and knowledge-wise all at once. I was thriving on the continual learning and Carl was one of those people who would throw a life raft out to me to help me comprehend.
And then it happened.
My voice mail light was blinking insistently, as it often did, when I returned to my office. I dumped my files and to-do list from the meeting on my desk and began listening to messages and recording names and numbers for call backs.
I froze. I thought I recognized the voice in the message. But it couldn’t be. I replayed it. Once. Twice. With shaking hands I put the phone down and got up to close my office door. What to do? The message on my phone was from Carl. He told me how turned on he was by me and that he felt that we could be very compatible together. At first I wondered what exactly he meant. Carl was married. My ex had cheated on me. He certainly knew I had zero respect for men who didn’t honor their vows. (Didn’t he?) But in his next message, Carl got more graphic about compatibility. We could see each other outside of work as more than friends. And – in his mind – obviously – as a divorced woman I needed sex – and he felt he could fill that need orally. And he told me he needed things his wife didn’t provide. . . so, (there you go!, I thought darkly), the relationship could satisfy us both.
I was stunned.
A million thoughts went through my mind – none of which was feeling flattered. I was hurt that my trust in our friendship had been broken. I felt minimized – like all that hard work I had been doing to learn and advance myself was just Carl trying to get into my pants. I felt objectified – like I didn’t matter as a person, like I would always be side-lined and not one of the boys in the office. I felt dirty and disgusted.
How would I continue to do my job with Carl as one of the main people with whom I had to interface? How would I face him? Did others know about this? Had he confided about me with some other guys and were they laughing?
What was my responsibility to the company? We had all been through diversity training. I was sure what he had done was wrong without a doubt. And he had to know that! (Was he stupid??) As a human resources professional myself I knew I should file a claim. But what would I say? What would I have to do to prove my claim? What if Carl denied it?
I decided to try to handle it myself. I ignored the voice mail message hoping my delicate act of avoidance would speak volumes to Carl. (Carl, this is not okay!)
The second invitation from Carl was in person over the phone. I was so shocked that I stumbled through a tactful refusal (while in my head, I was screaming ewwww!!).
“Look Carl,” I said kindly, “you’re married, we work together, and this is not a good idea. My answer is no.”
“Why then”, he asked, “did you lead me on? Why were you joking with me in the car and letting me think we had something?”
I was floored. I can’t even recall what we discussed in the car. I don’t know what I said that made him believe I would be interested in him in that way at all. (Trust me, without me being rude when I say I wasn’t one single bit attracted to Carl.)
My heart was racing. I was actually terrified. When I ran into him in a shopping center with his wife and children one evening, I had a full panic attack.
I did go to our HR Diversity office and I had a private conversation with our Diversity Manager. I felt dirty telling him what had happened. Why me?! Why should I feel dirty?? But still – I did not want to reveal Carl’s name for fear of repercussions. I just wanted the whole thing to go away. The Diversity Manager and I agreed on how I would handle it if he called again. And after the third call I very firmly said that if he continued I was going to have to report him to our diversity office. That stopped the calls, but not my extreme discomfort.
The experience left me feeling violated. And I wondered what I had done – how was I responsible for Carl’s behavior?
It was my brother-in-law, Larry, who set me straight. He looked me straight in the eyes weeks later when I told him what had happened and he said, “He’s done this before.” I looked at him dumbfounded. Carl was not charming, sensuous or enticing in any way, shape or form. So, what gave him the audacity to think any woman would fall for him that way? Seeing my look of total disbelief and confusion, Larry continued, “He’s done this before…and he’s gotten away with it. That’s why he thought he could do it to you.”
Those last five words, “could do it to you,” exposed the truth behind the lies of my working relationship with Carl. The phrase “could do it to you” does not imply equity or respect. Carl saw me as subservient, secondary, unassertive. And I let him get away with it. He knew I would.
I was reminded of this recently when a friend confided in me with a similar, more recent experience that happened to her. Don’t tell, she said, much as I had said 18 years previously. And I wondered – as I vowed to meet her wishes – why we women don’t tell. For me, I thought I held Carl’s future in my hands. I knew he had a wife and children. I knew he was a respected member of our technology team. I knew that if I formally complained he would lose everything. I felt responsible for him.
Why didn’t he feel responsible for me?
Our first step to ending inequity is to believe in ourselves. The second step is to never let anyone doubt our belief in ourselves. When we silence our voices, we give permission to others to continue with Carl-type behaviors. And so, I think, we cannot be silent.
As in any crime that violates human dignity we must speak up. The question is often, “how” and “to whom.” If you work in a major corporation, I’m certain you have a diversity office and a way to file a complaint. But what if you’re self-employed? That gets a little trickier. In all cases, the thing we fear in the telling is the very real possibility of ruining our own careers and even tarnishing our personal lives.
My very firm refusal of Carl’s advances and my less-than-idle threat to report him to our manager of diversity in our Human Resources EEO office was assertive and defended my own honor. On the other hand, I let Carl walk away from that event unscarred and completely capable of humiliating another woman. I think I took a coward’s way out.
In my brother-in-law’s words was a huge truth: not all men are like Carl; and not all men want us to cover for the men who are like Carl. My brother-in-law wanted me to speak out as much for myself and other future victims of Carl’s as he did for the men who themselves desire an equitable workplace.
I have told my story from my own perspective of a woman who was hit on by a man. But the reverse is also possible as is the similar assault of a man upon a man or woman upon a woman.
There is dysfunction in seeing another person as an object, as a means to our own satisfaction, success or pleasure. Until we begin speaking out, the silence will allow inequities to continue.
To “come on to” a colleague is not cool.
Buy a mug, get a t-shirt, tattoo it on your forearm if you agree:
I am your equal. You are my equal.
Defining “Come on to”
Oxford English Dictionary: informal – Make sexual advances toward.
Mirriam-Webster: informal – to show sexual interest in (someone) : to try to start a sexual relationship with (someone) <She complained that her boss has been coming on to her.>