This post has been sitting in draft mode for quite some time. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main one was that I was having trouble deciding what I really was hoping to achieve by putting it out there. Then, every time I thought I was ready to start, I would see a powerful and thoughtful post put out by others and I would think that I was just riding the coat tails of others. Jumping on the band wagon, so to speak.
This is my contribution to the #metoo conversation and the toxicity that is often present in the workplace.
You will quickly realize it`s not an account of how I experienced what many, many, many others have in the workplace (at least nothing that is at the level that others have experienced), but rather, how I played a role in allowing it, rather than be a victim of it.
That is incredibly tough to write and quite honestly, the reason why I didn’t feel worthy of weighing in on the subject.
Having mulled this over for months and months, I am not going to hash out the details – I don`t feel the need to use this post as a confessional to list out the specifics of my situation. In fact, they would only detract from the bigger issue. I am also not making excuses, but rather explaining why I did what I did. And also why I realized how wrong it was and how much it ultimately hurt me and others.
To start, I have to explain that I grew up not trusting women. Much of my experiences through family and school lead me to believe that girls and women were ultimately in competition with each other and that helping them out meant you were only hurting yourself.
I was one of those kids who was quiet enough and didn`t react easily, so adults often forgot or didn`t worry about me being around – I absorbed everything. What I learned from the women in my family was that there are two types of women: girly, silly and useless or hard, serious and successful. Ultimately you needed to fit in (read: act like a man) and not be associated with `flightly` female behaviour. The women closest to me in my family rarely supported each other, never said what they really felt, and judged each other harshly on every aspect of their lives. This became a cornerstone for all my future friendships with girls.
I did have girl friends, but they were always tinged with a worry about what they really thought of me (because surely they are saying something different behind my back) and waiting for some level of betrayal. I was also highly judgemental of what I considered flakiness. When many of these friendships waned or broke off, I saw it as proof that I couldn`t rely on them.
I also had a lot of friends who were guys. These, I felt were less complicated because I did not expect them to provide me what girl friends would, in both the good and bad sense. There was certainly less drama, so easier on a day-to-day basis. However, there was also less connection and support.
By the time I started working full-time, this was solidly entrenched in how I interacted with people – my lack of willingness to be vulnerable and share, along with a sharp sense of humour meant that I tended to get along better with my male colleagues than my female ones. At this point in my life, I did not feel entirely comfortable with this, but it had worked for me up until then.
In my pre-HR days, I was working in a group that was predominantly male and just as it was when I was a kid, I was “quiet enough and didn`t react“ so the men I associated with often forgot that I was around and made comments about women, both general and specific, that they wouldn`t have said around others. I was accepted as “one of the guys“ and enjoyed the privileges that this entailed.
I soon realized that men sometimes said things that they would never say to these women`s face and judged them harshly, but it was worse – it wasn`t pettiness or hurt, it was just mean and toxic.
I would like to write that I lost it on them when they made these comments or jokes, that I called them on the bullshit they were spouting and walked away. I really would like to write that. But the truth is that I often chuckled at the jokes, shook my head at the comments (but didn`t say anything), and sometimes just walked away, but with the excuse that I had to do something.
In essence, I developed a coping mechanism of hiding in plain sight. Somehow I felt that as long as I was sitting with them, I would not be a target, but the trade-off for this was that I couldn`t say anything that would bring attention to me. I was absolutely conflicted about being a women and listening to how others were speaking about women. To top it off, I now had a daughter and saw all of this through a completely new perspective.
Let`s be clear here, I was not a victim, I was part of the problem. Hard stop.
I let it happen unchallenged because I thought “at least it wasn`t me“. (And that`s the messed up part – it probably was me at times when I wasn`t there). I was more concerned about the impacts to my social and work situation than I was about defending that of others. I rationalized it by saying that they would have said those things whether I was there or not and that if I made a fuss, I would then become one of those women who couldn`t take a joke.
Around this time, I realized that I did not want my daughter to grow up seeing women the way I did – that I wanted that part of her life to be more balanced. I worked hard at modelling something that did not come naturally to me and in the end, it is she who actually broke down the barriers for me and helped me to see what was always there. She has been part of a strong female community that celebrates rather than tears down each other. This has been life changing for me.
Getting to where I am now has taken a lot of work and shifting for me. Part of that was leaving that work environment and finding myself in a new place where it was predominantly women (talk about culture shock!) It was building new work and friend relationships with women unlike me or those I grew up with. It was learning from my daughter and experiencing the powerful effect of women supporting women.
I have had to learn to trust, be vulnerable, defend others and be defended. During this, I have been let down a few times, but I have also been lifted up, even when I didn`t think it was deserved. I now belong to some great communities.
So back to what the purpose of sharing this could be…what I decided was that I wanted to put out there what women don`t like to talk about – the role that some women played in hurting or, as with my case, not helping each other.
I have hesitated putting this out there because of how it reflects on me and makes me look bad and then it hit me…THAT, that right there, is what I have been trying so hard to stop doing.
This is not just about me. It`s about speaking up now, when I should have then.