Uncomfortably grasping for words across the table from men twice my age with titles far more astute than my own, I’ve become intimate with the dark underbelly of a woman’s workplace. The greats teach us to explore relationships, make connections and take risks in pursuit of betterment.
Yet they forget to mention the part where our bodies become as trivial at the contents of the supply closet, and our worth becomes entangled in unwanted flirtations, imbalances of power and unspoken manipulations suffered at the hands of our trusted advisors within the institutions we’re obligated to trust. There is no coursework on the consuming guilt that fogs your mind with berating questions of, “Why did I let that happen?”, “How did I get here?”, “What did I do to bring this upon myself?”
Nobody prepares you for the discomfort, yet when we speak of our trouble, no one, women especially, is surprised.
In the fall of 2017, the chests of women across the country tightened as they clutched their iPhones, bombarded by the heartaches of our peers, dredging up the pain from our pasts and opening our eyes to the reality of womanhood in our America.
Weinstein and Spacey and Lauer.
Abhorrent stories of harassment, rape, gaslighting, manipulation and misconduct raced down our Twitter feeds in a tragic choir of #MeToo.
We raised our fists and rallied, picket signs bedazzled in pussy puns thrust to the sky. We squeezed our sisters closer and watched the faces of mothers and daughters and colleagues and friends illuminate in red-hot rage. The media roared the names of perpetrators, while the public followed suit.
Batali and Cosby and Kavanaugh.
We stood in solidarity with the victims, on our feet, in our graphic tees, on our Instagram; cloaking our bodies in an armor of feminist fury and hiding the soul-crushing pain. Each victim releasing her story, owning her torment, was met with an uproar of grandiose applause. Her courageous outcry like a squeegee, wiping the grime from our eyes; showing us, clearly, the abusers in our own lives.
Family and clergy and colleagues.
Over a year later, we’ve cheered for progress and mourned the setbacks, gripping tightly to our rage. Despite an overwhelming awareness that we are, undeniably, still together in the ring–thrashing and recovering, one day at a time, I feel compelled to ask:
In an era where women have fought to peel back the eyelids of our male counterparts, has anything changed?
“You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” Donald Trump said in the 2005 Access Hollywood tape heard round the world. Amid the hate storm in response our president retorted confidently, explaining his behavior away as locker room banter — normal, acceptable conversation had in jest among men.
Boys will be boys, the people chirp.
Eyes roll and heads shake while the crowd collectively looks the other way.
An inconceivable reality of our world has been built on a society consciously turning away from revolting behavior and mechanical manipulations of power and toward a nonsense belief that male genitalia comes as a package deal with the objectification of women and lousy locker room etiquette.
Men of status and wealth, in and outside of Hollywood, have been lifted onto a platform above morality, praised for their professional accolades, and washed entirely of the choices made in their personal lives. Women, made to fear the wrath of men of status, have kept tight-lipped about the secret exchanges that violently threaten their safety, comfort, and peace of mind.
The cultures of Miramax and Weinstein Company, production and distribution companies co-founded by Harvey Weinstein, were curated around his serially heinous behavior. In interviews with Ronan Farrow for the October 2017 New York Times exposé, Weinstein’s staff uncovered secret practices among assistants and associates built to perpetuate his behavior and create false safety for his victims. A female executive explained how assistants were asked to join Weinstein’s meetings with women he was keen on, often held in the evenings in hotel rooms, and later dismissed so he could be alone. Another employee was asked to log these meetings between Weinstein and the women with a standardized filing used among his staff: F.O.H. Or “Friend of Harvey.”
Despite this behavior, known clearly among the halls of his peers, Weinstein’s power triumphed. Known to intimidate and publicly threaten the credibility of women who rejected his advances, Weinstein often used media and professional connections to spread gossip, removing women from projects and jeopardizing, sometimes slaughtering, their careers.
“Don’t ruin your friendship with me for five minutes,” you hear Weinstein warn Filipina-Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez in the taped conversationcollected in a New York Police Department’s 2015 sting operation. Weinstein’s alpha-Hollywood reputation for poignant scripts, award-winning films, and grandiose charitability, also includes a decades-long list of transgressions kept behind tight lips. His victims account forced sex, groping and assault.
Invited to discuss their careers, these women would find Weinstein unclothed, masturbating, demanding oral sex, massage–just five minutes. Sadly, this trap between a woman’s job and her sexuality is a tight, uncomfortable space felt far beyond the walls of Hollywood hotels and deeply ingrained in the undocumented world of the professional female.
Across the country, women sit silently in boardrooms, listening to the buzz of the boys, strategically choosing each word for fear of deep-voiced declarations of over-emotional, cute, or worse yet, nothing at all. We waffle over the depth of our neckline and the rise of our hemline, searching for the balance of beautiful enough to be invited to the table and too feminine to be heard. We smile at our abusers as they tell the jokes, creep their hands up our thigh, back us into a corner because it’s what we’ve been taught to do.
“We try to make sense of nonsense, and we swallow the furious feelings. We try to put them into some hidden place in our minds, but they don’t go away, “ Tracee Ellis Ross said in her 2018 TED talk.
Throughout history, our bodies have worn the burden of a secret pain. Abused women bonding to abused women, exchanging knowing stares and an empathetic helplessness in the face of our shared pain. Our hearts skipping the same beat, our chests twinging the same pain, our shoulders sinking from the same superfluous shame. Questions of why and how and what’s next push us into darkness, convoluting our vision until we believe the mistake was ours.
Ross continued, “That fury sits deep inside as we practice our smiles…because apparently, women aren’t supposed to get angry.”
But now we are.
A man leaned on his elbow on the bar and watched me pull my sweatshirt over my head. I felt his eyes burning into me, my shoulders turned away from his uncomfortable stares and toward the safety of my friend in the stool beside me. Weeks before I sat next to a man, at the very same bar, engaging in a professional conversation about work and goals and the town we both wished to make a lasting impression on. I felt his eyes burning into me too, as he leaned closer and closer, reaching to touch my shoulders between stories.
I rushed away from the first man, grabbing my jacket and drink, bulging eyes communicating clearly to my friend without words.
What a fucking creep.
The other I sat with, frozen to my seat, paralyzed by an uncertain fear. What choice does a young woman make, tucked into a bar, trapped between the unwanted, sexual pursuit of a peer and the potential for undeniable career gains?
According to a Pew Research Center study, American women hold only about 10% of top executive positions (defined as chief executive officers, chief financial officers and the next three highest paid executives). The 2016–17 data was collected from federal securities filings by all companies in the benchmark Standard & Poor’s Composite 1500. This research, while highlighting corporate facts, comes with little shock value to women working in a man’s world in any job sector. The data shows that 5.1% of chief executives of S&P 1500 companies were women, while experience has shown us all that the desks of businesses, small and large, are predominantly occupied by white men.
The problem is clear: we need more empowered, educated, inspired women to claim the roles now filled by men. The solution is simple: empower, educate and inspire women with mentorships, resources and tools to launch their careers on a trajectory leading toward claiming executive level positions, cultivating prosperous businesses and achieving professional success at an equal pace to our male counterparts. However, as claims of witch hunts buzz through our office halls and men, opting to remain spooked versus empathetic, throw their hands in the air a la Vice President Pence, the reality is grim.
Bloomberg calls it The Pence Effect. Men, in response to #MeToo fires, systematically backing away from all workplace interactions with women as a means to remain untouched by the flames.
Perhaps Pence’s personal rule to not attend meals alone with any woman other than his wife has inspired the practice of the corporate masses. Bloomberg gathered stories from 30 senior executives, many whose stories carried a common thread: fear of perception.
Anonymous interviews exposed the walking-on-eggshells fears of these executives, uneasy about the gossip and liabilities that come with occupying the same space as females, particularly the youthful and attractive. Men have entirely removed professional dinners, closed-door meetings, travel and even elevator conversation from their work culture, creating a subculture that holds their thumbs over women with their minds not much different from how their peers have done similarly with their bodies.
Despite the battle cries of women scorned, the boys club lives on–possibly stronger than before. Manipulated by the power-imbalances of the workplace, held hostage by our fear, undulating between the unwanted gazes and cowardly stonewalling made worse by our youth, perceived beauty and worse yet, our voices.
We live in a world where women are keenly aware of their objectification and where men consciously chose retreat over reform. Our positions perpetuate the gross imbalance of our wages, opportunities and the safe pursuit of professional progress.
Across the country, the lips of rightfully pissed-off women collectively scream for revolution, yet our voices grow weaker with each pained bellow to our male allies. Each hidden sob, heaved into the shoulders of the trusted ones, crushing our spirit, leaving us questioning our will to fight on. The abusers, the pigs and the monsters, siphoning our ferocity — disregarding our rage.
“Grab ’em by the pussy,” President Trump told Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush.
“You can do anything.”