Women, Money and Power: When the sexual harassment stopped
I can’t pinpoint when exactly it happened, but it was sometime in 2007 when I stopped being a victim of sexual harassment in my professional life. Yes, I still get an occasional cat call on the street or an obnoxious ass grab in a nightclub — that type of harassment will probably continue until we have a massive cultural awakening. Like many other women in work environments around the world, I was seen and treated as someone that others could take advantage of, make comments about or degrade in a sexually objectifying way.
However, in 2007, it all changed. It wasn’t that I just stopped “playing the victim” or “showed up with more badassery” — no, the sexual harassment actually stopped — and it stopped overnight. It didn’t decrease. I didn’t see it from a different perspective or interpret men’s actions differently. It actually stopped.
After reading a number of #MeToo stories, processing and sharing my own sexual assault survival story, and deep conversations around power and gender dynamics, I finally arrived at an answer to the question: Why did it the sexual harassment stop in 2007?
Before I begin, it’s important to remember that sexual harassment and assault is ALWAYS about POWER.
I am no stranger to sexual harassment in the workplace. Some of the worst offenses happened in the early 2000’s at the beginning of my professional life, when I was teaching high school. A colleague of mine said aloud to a classroom full of teenagers that Ms. B (me) was a “hot piece of ass.” This was exclaimed loud enough for me to hear as I walked past the open door of his classroom. Students later told me that he said worse things to them when I wasn’t there. I reported him to the school administration, but he had tenure and it was difficult to fire a science teacher in Alaska — as it was really hard to find teachers. To supplement my teaching salary after I moved to Arizona, I also worked at Sullivan’s steakhouse, a high-end restaurant chain that catered to businessmen. On a slow night, one of the managers said to me “I bet you don’t wear panties under your skirt.” He then made the V-signal with his fingers licking his “hand crotch.” Another manager at this same restaurant actually grabbed me by the hips and pulled me onto his lap at an after-closing event where he was intoxicated and entertaining a wine distributor. I ended up pouring a pot of hot coffee on his lap and was fired on the spot.
In 2007, on short notice and in the act of standing up for myself and the integrity of the organization I worked for, I quit my job. I had been working as the fundraiser for a small non-profit whose Executive Director engaged in some very self-serving and bullying behavior, as well as financial mis-management. When I finally confronted him about not honoring his word on a performance-based raise he had promised me as well as some missing funds from donors, he skirted the missing money conversation and then smirked at me and replied, “Did you get it in writing?” clearly letting me know that I was in no position to challenge his gaslighting. I had finally had enough. I wrote a letter to the board of directors, resigning from my job and blowing the whistle on all I had witnessed. This ultimately led to the firing of my boss, who was escorted by security out of the building.
In order for my words to carry the weight of truth, I felt had to quit my job. I couldn’t wait until I had another job lined up — I had to act decisively and without hesitation. I leapt into the void of financial uncertainty. I was terrified. Living in one of the most expensive cities in the world on a non-profit salary, I was barely making my rent each month. The fear that I would fall flat on my face was almost paralyzing.
At this point, it’s critical to acknowledge the role of privilege in choice. I am writing this from the perspective of a woman with privilege. While terrifying, quitting my job in 2007 wasn’t a choice that would leave me destitute. I might not be able to pay my rent or buy food, but I wouldn’t have been hungry or homeless for very long — if at all. If worse came to worse and I couldn’t find another job, I could move out of San Francisco and go live with my family in New Mexico. When I quit my job, I was an attractive, intelligent, articulate white woman with a college education and no kids. I had a lot of things that would make it easy for me to survive.
Of course, as often happens when one has privilege, things worked out better than expected. I launched my own business instead of looking for another job. Within a short time, I had three significant clients for my consulting business (Green Ideas) and over $1 million in funding for a startup software platform I had started developing (www.opentreemap.org).
So what changed? I gained access to power. It wasn’t just internal power or only external power, it was both. My external position of power relative to men changed and at the same time something deep inside me fundamentally shifted.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but taking this leap to start my own businesses moved me into an externally validated position of power. I was the now the boss. Not one of the people who worked for me or with me dared even consider making a sexual advance toward me or speak to me in a demeaning way. Perhaps one reason was because I surrounded myself with outstanding individuals . . . which was definitely the case. But I had agency to do so because I was now in a position of privilege and power. It was my choice of who to hire. It was my choice who I worked with.
You cannot have power without choice. Which means that the empowerment of women must include enabling women to have choices. Financial sovereignty is one of the keys to choice. I define “financial sovereignty” as the ability to make choices that support one’s happiness and wellbeing — with the option to leave unhealthy situations (such as jobs or relationships), while having the economic means to support those choices.
The key to stopping sexual harassment toward women and making the #metoo movement a moment in history is the empowerment of women, both internally and externally. Women’s empowerment does not mean the disempowerment of men. More women moving into places of power is about a balancing — not a taking away of male power and privilege. Those that are truly powerful never have to seek power over or take power away from another person.
Yes, we need more women in positions of power to rebalance the power inequalities. Women can abuse power too. And we all need to be very careful how we manage power. Power, no matter who has it, there is always the temptation for abuse. True mastery is walking that fine line. As Eleanor Roosevelt wrote on behalf of her husband FDR, “ . . . great power involves great responsibility.”