After years of denial, anger and bargaining, I'm realising that some of the damaging behaviour I experienced in my early career, wasn't ok at all. By laughing it off, how much responsibility should I take for normalising sexual harassment?
"Suddenly my uniform of mini skirts and vintage boots didn't seem wildly inappropriate, I was amongst my own, or so I thought."
From Fleet Street to Soho
When I graduated from Law School in the early 2000s, I was completely lost. I'd spent the last 3 years of my life training to be a lawyer, and the progression was obvious, what I should do next, was spelled out before me in the ABC's of my life. Except that it wasn't. I floundered. Lost in the grip of an existential crisis, who did I want to be? I knew, had known for some time, that Law was not the love of my life - but in the absence of knowing what was right, I only knew what wasn't. But then I met a friend of a friend at a party, who introduced me to an entertainment advertising agency that was looking for junior marketers. It was perfect. Deepest, darkest Soho, artisan coffee, hipster pubs. Suddenly my uniform of mini skirts and vintage boots didn't seem wildly inappropriate at all, there was no need for formality, no suits and stifling tights. I was amongst my own, or so I thought.
Not So Woke
Whilst there were young people, cool people, creative people, people you could even describe by today's standards as 'woke', there was, as is so often the case, those whose 'playfulness' was simply harassment. For many years, I struggled firsthand with being treated as 'the cherry on top of the cake' as one not-so-woke boss put it - an inducement for lonely, older men, who wanted the undivided attention of a young, single woman, whose life was her job. I was young and stupid, sometimes I revelled in the attention, even enjoyed it. But truly, I will plead my ignorance, my inability to understand my situation or its danger, and my desire to 'get on', to succeed, to be the best.
"I could not bring myself to say no in more strict terms than these, for fear of losing his business, an account that was keeping our agency afloat - or worse still my position, as the key person between the two."
Even Heads Of Department Get The Blues
This harassment could be insidious or overt, ranging from a continual need to discuss what I was wearing, to producers who obsessively pursued me. In my minds eye, it is everything from being told I was 'sexy' by a boss, to having one try and kiss me in the back of a cab. Whilst the physical acts stick in my mind as the most shocking - and I want to be clear now, that I am not talking about rape, more the inappropriate touching of my leg under a meeting room table or an invitation to a hotel room while steering me aggressively by my elbow; it is the conversations around these issues that have for me, been the most damaging. Once, when attending a well known awards ceremony and hosting a number of clients, I found myself stood outside with one, who was trying to convince to me to sleep with him. I talked and talked, trying to explain, kindly and firmly, that I was not interested, that I was in a relationship and happy, that he was married and happy. I could not bring myself to say no in more strict terms than these, for fear of losing his business, an account that was keeping our agency afloat - or worse still my position, as the key person between the two. Luckily for me, this cajoling worked, and he left alone, albeit under sufferance. The next day, I told a number of senior colleagues - I might mention at this point that I was not a junior, but a Head Of Department, in order to ensure the matter could be dealt with sensitively, but also to insist that one of them should accompany me to meetings with the client, until normal service could resume. One told me outright, that I had been leading the client on. That he had been watching us, that I had been drinking and paying him a lot of attention. For a while, this floored me. Even now, writing this down, it floors me still.
"His comments spoke of his ignorance, of his inability to understand that a woman can be friendly, even flirty, without the intention, without EVER the intention of this being a precursor to sex."
But I am also old enough, and with enough experience and success behind me now, to say NO, I was not. And in the advent of #metoo - how dare you! And shame on you! It was my job to entertain this client, to ensure he was happy, that he felt part of our team. If my male colleague had behaved as I did, 'paying him attention' as I did, this would have been considered professional, part of the job. I was a 25 year old, state educated Asian woman, in a senior team made up entirely of public school educated white men in their 30s, 40s, 50s. The client was in his 40s. I felt my otherness. I knew I was lucky to be there. At the time it didn't occur to me that this colleague was simply wrong, that his comments spoke of his ignorance, of his inability to understand that a woman can be friendly, even flirty, without the intention, without EVER the intention of this being a precursor to sex. To him, the attention I received was deserved. I had asked for it.
"But #metoo has given me the strength...not to worry anymore about being 'that woman'. Because now I realise, she was the one with the courage of her convictions. The one brave enough to take action. And by thinking of her as 'that woman', all I've done, is buy into the stereotype created to stop us from speaking out."
Its taken me many years to realise, I don't need to see this man's comments as a reason to doubt my own version of events, that the years of discussion around my legs and arse, weren't funny or 'part of the industry' that I worked in. That laughing it off, and normalising it, as I have done with so many things in my life that have made me uncomfortable, is ultimately the most damaging thing of all. To accept that behaviour, is to nurture and grow it. And now I shoulder the burden of guilt, the feeling of shame, that somehow, someway, I should have been stronger, braver, better. That I should have said, out loud, the things that I often thought - which were GO AWAY, STOP, THAT ISN'T FUNNY, HOW WOULD YOU FEEL IF SOMEONE SPOKE TO YOUR DAUGHTER LIKE THIS? But the truth is, I knew, I would simply have become 'that woman'. The one that can't take a joke, the one you shouldn't hire or promote because she doesn't 'understand' how things work. This doesn't make me any less culpable. For all my bravado and idiocy, I am truly a smart woman. I know what's right. I know when lines get crossed and at what point to fight. But #metoo has given me the strength to admit that out loud. Not to worry anymore about being 'that woman'. Because now I realise, she was the one with the courage of her convictions. The one brave enough to take action. And by thinking of her as 'that woman', all I've done, is buy into the stereotype created to stop us from speaking out.
I'm Woke, Baby
Its been a long time since I left that industry, which like all industries, has its dark underbelly; no better or worse than the one I work in now. But having spent the majority of my 20s living in a Benny Hill sketch, I'm proud to say I've become that woman. The one who stands up for herself and others, when she feels something isn't right, the one who isn't afraid to speak out, and speak up. And I may not be quite there yet, but Lord, you could almost call me Woke.