In October, 1983, I found myself in the clinical room of a middle-aged medical doctor whom I was meeting for the first time. I was not a patient, I was a 21-year-old medical sales representative doing her job.
He was a doctor in my sales territory. I was new to professional selling. I was on my own. Nothing unusual except when I came into his room and sat down, he stood up, locked the door then came over to me, sat down beside me and attempted to hand me a glass of whisky.
I was frozen to the spot for a brief moment. I was not expecting this and everything in my body screamed ‘get out of here’. Trying to be polite, I told him I didn’t want the drink and we should talk about business. But instead, he tried to talk me into the drink. When he tried to touch me I jumped and ran to the locked door and demanded to be let out. Yet he still tried it on, pleading and cajoling me to take part in his debauchery. I told him I would scream if he didn’t open the door and let me out. Eventually, after what seemed like a lifetime, he opened the door and I ran.
This doctor was a lecherous pervert who thought nothing of trying to intimidate and bully a young woman. Now, this was a Wednesday, and we had no mobile phones so I couldn’t tell my sales manager until Friday when we were back in the office for our sales meeting. When I told my sales manager what happened he said not to worry about it — it was just that doctor.
When I heard the allegations about Harvey Weinstein and, especially in articles around a wire tap conversation between him and a young Italian actress earlier this week, the memories of what happened to me came flooding back.
Sadly, this was not my only instance. I found when I went to sell on regional country trips and stayed over in motels, if I sat in the restaurant for dinner where there were usually several other salespeople (nearly always middle-aged men), I was hit on at least one or twice a night. They would proposition me with one thing or another. They, too, were creepy lecherous men. Ever since those early incidents I never eat in a restaurant when I am away on business and always eat in my room alone.
I could share many more personal stories about dealing with sexism, misogyny, intimidation and sexual abuse, both verbal and physical, but I won’t because I think you get the picture. I am not alone.
This is how it was back then, with nothing much changing in the intervening years.
I hear you say, “why haven’t we called this out earlier?”.
Well firstly, I did raise these issues with my bosses over the years and was completely ignored or not believed and told to toughen up on many occasions. Many women who do speak up are not believed.
Actor Julianne Moore also tweeted that:
“Coming forward about sexual abuse and coercion is scary and women have nothing to be gained personally by doing so.”
As women, we have been dealing with this by ourselves for way too long and it’s time we are believed and supported.
I would like to note that these dreadful behaviours and attitudes do not apply to all men. Most men would never behave this way or even think about behaving this way.
However, there are still too many people who do not stand up to sexism, misogyny, intimidation and sexual abuse and call it out for what it is.
We need our leaders, especially our male leaders in any powerful roles, to take a stand and support women; to take a stand and stamp out sexism, misogyny, intimidation, and sexual abuse.
That being said, there are many lessons I have learned from navigating these situations.
To protect myself from unwanted advances and to be taken seriously in the business world, I changed myself. I learned how to be direct, strong and verbally fluent and proficient. I learned how to present, hold myself under pressure and deal with challenging situations. I stayed physically fit and strong so I was prepared for anything. I became warier even though my default setting is based on trust. I stay on topic and focus on business and very rarely do I go into the personal. I use humour to get around tricky topics and stay on track.
I am by nature an open and trusting person. However, because of my experiences in dealing with these types of people I had to learn how to protect myself. So, sometimes my demeanour and approach are mistaken for being too aloof, blunt, or too direct. I make no apologies for that because this is what I had to do to protect myself in the business world.
Top 10 lessons I learned from dealing with sexual harassment and misogyny
- My instincts do not lie;
- I did nothing to provoke or invite the other person’s heinous actions — they were fully accountable and responsible for their bad behaviour alone;
- My reactions times are fast;
- My verbal skills are fast and adaptive, which allows me to talk my way out of most tricky situations;
- I am glad I am physically strong and my dad taught me how to throw a punch if I ever got cornered;
- In business and in life, my gender is not up for discussion; I am here as a capable and competent person, whether others like it or not;
- I stand for ethical selling and ethical business practices and will not be coerced or bribed;
- I will not let the misconduct of others define me;
- I will stand up and defend myself and others and what is right, even if it means losing business and contacts; and
- I will not be bullied or tyrannised by prevailing views and attitudes.
I hope this is the beginning of the end of these dreadful experiences; however, I do not think so. Even if it is, we need to be every vigilant and hold people to account.
So let’s help ourselves and others.
And do not accept this type of behaviour, ever!
In closing, I would like to share a link to this great article by Anna Victoria Clark. It’s fantastic.
Remember everybody lives by selling something.