Recent shocking new stories about abuses in a reportedly toxic work environment here in Canada and video evidence of the heckling of women in public have got me thinking about my own experiences. Have I ever encountered inappropriate behaviour in the workforce or on the streets of Vancouver? Have I ever concluded that I was treated badly but felt that I couldn’t speak up?
The passage of time has a softening effect on our memories of awkward, upsetting, unjust or inappropriate behaviour that took place years ago. Fresh news stories only serve to sharpen our understanding of memories that have been packed away but can’t be erased. Unexpectedly they re-emerge and we can see them in a new light.
At the relatively young age of 22, I moved to Vancouver during a recession and pounded the pavement (via transit) looking for a job that could assist with my rent and other expenses. I was job hunting during the second worst period of youth unemployment in Canada’s recorded employment history. (The third worst hiring period for Canadian young adults started in recent years.) In the rush to find a job before my savings ran out, I recall visiting a mining company headquarters. The wood paneled office was housed in a 19th century building on Pender street. The hiring managers must have been sufficiently interested in my potential when they invited me in for an interview. I remember the questions they asked and how I felt that the meeting went well. Later on I learned that I hadn’t been offered the job even though I met all of the qualifications. When I inquired about the reason why, I was told that senior managers felt my health problems would get in the way of my ability to function on the job. They came to this conclusion because I had asked about health and drug plan benefits. I had no health problems and I wasn’t using any medications. I had simply asked if there were other extra benefits that came with the job package. My friends urged me to challenge this decision; however, I didn’t feel that I had the resources to press a complaint. I didn’t want to make waves or develop a bad reputation with the employment firm that had referred me to the interview. I didn’t speak up.
Not long afterwards I found an administrative job in a high-end office environment working with professionals who were, on average, anywhere from 20 something to 50 something years old. In keeping with the designer furniture and well heeled colleagues, I didn’t hesitate to wear dressy mini skirts to the office matched with tailored jackets. While standing in the lunch room, I found myself fielding comments from men – some twice my age – that I looked “hot”. In particular the focus was on how long my legs were and how sexy I looked.
What could I say about that? I wasn’t dressing to please the men in the office. I was embracing accepted and age-appropriate fashion trends as young women are apt to do. From the men’s point of view I suspect they felt that they were making enjoyable conversation. But was it enjoyable at my expense? Would we have had the same conversation if I was twice as old? Similar comments were made about my colleague’s breasts. She always laughed in reply. In 2014 women don’t tend to wear skirts quite that short. Some might say that I should have worn longer, more modest hemlines. Should I have covered myself up to avoid these types of comments? It’s not as if I was coming to work in a bikini or a blouse with cleavage down to my belly button.
About the same time I had an unexpected conversation with a male colleague twice my age. I’ll admit that aside from an awkward laugh, there was no clever comeback. While standing next to a vase full of roses that were shedding their petals, he told me what he was feeling at that moment. He was a successful, well dressed professional. He liked to ski and sail and represented one of my first images of what a typical Vancouver male was all about. “I’d like to lay you down on these petals and make love to you over and over”, he said. This was one of the first times that we’d conversed one-on-one about any even remotely personal topic.
“Right. OH K….”, I thought, in slow motion.
It was a disturbing moment. I’d grown to understand that my intellect and work ethic mattered. Now I came to realize that my looks and physical appearance were also a form of currency in the workplace. The prospect of making conversation with a focus on his sexual fantasy was not something that sat well with me.
I didn’t speak up.
I did not inform my manager about these workplace conversations. I needed this job and I needed it to go well for me until I didn’t need it anymore and could move on. Years later I can guarantee that the people involved in these conversations wouldn’t even recall that they took place. Perhaps they had already forgotten within months.
While visiting Vancouver a number of years later, I found myself in Yaletown sporting a fashion forward outfit that I had bought in Tokyo. I had moved overseas for better work prospects and decided to visit a friend for coffee. I passed by a building site and was heckled by the men who worked at the construction site. I’d experienced public declarations about my appearance in Italy but this felt different. At the time I was wearing high heeled wedges, a mini skirt, a fitted top, well groomed long hair and a fashionable backpack. In Japan I would have bounded about without a thought in this outfit, fitting in with the fashion forward women around me. Here in Vancouver I received “Hey there hot stuff!” call outs and whistles. Did these men understand that I wasn’t dressed this way to attract their attention? I felt uncomfortable but I didn’t respond.
As I changed directions in my career and completed further training, I thought that I’d left these types of situations behind. After working in one job for some time, I prepared to leave it and move on to another opportunity. Not long before departing, I found out that I had had a romantic relationship with one of my male colleagues. At least that was the story that was being floated. “How strange”, I thought. “We barely knew each other. What had this “reputation” meant for how I had been perceived within the organization?”. It was too late to find out. I didn’t seek redress. I didn’t speak up. Within weeks I had moved on.
A few years later I returned to Vancouver and started a job in a large organization. This was my first experience working in a unionized office. On my very first day a colleague passed by my desk and welcomed me by announcing that I had arrived at a department that has a strong commitment to the union. It just so happens that that person was the union rep. “Is he serious?”, I thought. Could circumstances, similar to those emerging from the CBC of women crying in office washrooms and other long-term issues, have happened where I worked? My instinct tells me that if they had happened, they wouldn’t have continued unaddressed.
It’s hard to control what happens on the streets but I’d like to think that it’s getting easier for women in the workplace as the years go by. The corporate culture and climate in an organization determine if a workplace is a healthy, safe and non-discriminatory work environment for women. When women experience uncomfortable (as I did) or even threatening actions, there are reasons why they might not come forward with confidence. If we become aware of inappropriate activity – especially in an official capacity as a manager or union representative – we have a professional obligation to not turn away or provide the wrong type of advice. We can’t allow circumstances to progress, without any satisfactory investigations or solutions, to the extent that women feel they have to speak out in public even if they would rather maintain their privacy. In my case, there is no cost to sharing about my experiences. For other women, the emotional and professional costs are high. As managers and leaders in the work force, we have a moral and legal obligation to create safe and supportive environments for people of all socio-demographic backgrounds.
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Daily Dish Archives: Pamela Chan, BCfamily.ca