It was probably my fault
My first job out of college, I worked for an insurance company. I had a stint where I traveled through Texas, Arkansas, and New Mexico to train insurance agents in one of the company’s products.
I was 22 years old, a young women working with almost all men. In fact, I don’t remember seeing one single female agent.
Wow. I just realized that. I don’t think there was one single woman in the five offices I would visit.
I don’t know what the situation is now with women in insurance, but good insurance agents can make a really good living. Women, consider insurance and financial planning as a career!
When I would present to the agents – standing in front of them in the office, trying to teach them about a new product they could sell that could help increase their income, they would yell at me and tease me and interrupt me.
I thought that was normal.
I thought it was normal that men should not respect women in the workplace.
I thought it was normal, but I also knew that I couldn’t do my job if the men wouldn’t let me talk.
So I asked my brother for advice. “How do I get them to listen to me?” I asked him
“You need to pick one of them and turn the others on him,” he advised. “They need to be distracted from teasing you by teasing one of them.”
Which is exactly what I did.
I picked one of them and made some smart-aleck comment to him. I felt bad doing it – I felt like I was picking on him.
But it worked.
The pack gleefully turned on one of their own and attacked him.
And I was able to do my job and get through the presentation. The presentation that COULD HELP THEM MAKE MORE MONEY. Good grief.
I learned how to talk to the (always older) men who would ask me out.
I don’t know if this was the right thing to say, but it’s what I did say.
When OLD MEN would ask me out, rather than saying, “I don’t date people I work with” (which should have been my answer and also should have been my policy, but sadly, it was not, although there is nothing wrong with working with people you date but working with people you used to date? that’s tougher ask me how I know), I said, in an effort not to be rude, “I think I’m too young for you.”
Because saying “You’re too old for me man who is at least 35!” would have been SO RUDE.
Thank goodness I didn’t say that.
But also – MEN! Sheesh. Do not ask young women at work out on a date.
Don’t ask any women at work out on a date. Don’t get your honey where you get your money.
But I wasn’t so sure how to handle the physical harassment.
I was in the Albuquerque office, sitting at a desk, talking about the product with a few agents, when one of the men – who was my dad’s age, whom I had never met before, with whom I had no relationship at all – came up to me and
I stopped talking.
I didn’t know what to do.
I don’t even remember what happened next. Did one of the other men tell him to stop? Did he notice that I wasn’t speaking and that my muscles were suddenly tense?
He lifted his hands away.
And I started talking again.
Later, the manager of that office asked if I would go to lunch with him to talk about agency strategy.
I wanted nothing to do with him or his people, so I said I couldn’t – that I was going shopping during lunch.
DO NOT DO THIS.
As my VP counseled me later, when I returned to the office, after he had called her to complain, “going shopping” is not a good excuse for not meeting with a work colleague during working hours.
I told her that I had eaten with him before and he ate with his mouth open (which was true) so I hadn’t wanted to eat with him again.
But I knew I couldn’t tell him that his bad manners were the reason.
My VP sighed and said I needed to have a better excuse at hand but also that it really was part of my job to meet with co-workers.
It didn’t even occur to me to tell her about the man who had massaged my neck.
It didn’t even occur to me that that was an event I should report to someone.
(Not that I would have known who to report it to.)
It didn’t even occur to me that there should have been rules against this sort of thing.
And I hadn’t even thought about this until recently, when I saw similar stories on twitter. And I realized that in all the decades since this happened, I never once thought, I SHOULD HAVE TOLD SOMEONE.
That is how deep into this we are. That we don’t even see our own harassment.
At the time, it was something to shrug off. It was just what happened, right? That’s how the world is.
The older I get, the angrier I become.