(All names have been changed)
I was completely broke when I moved from San Francisco to New York City to attend graduate school. I was using all of my loan money on rent and hardly had two cents to rub together, let alone spend on things like groceries or happy hour. It was of the utmost importance that I get a part time job, and fast. So, when a small downtown real estate company called me in for a $10/hour clerical position, I was pretty relieved.
I arrived for my interview the proper fifteen minutes early, dressed in a spring dress and cardigan, with my hair and nails looking sharp. Even with no money, I knew how to make the professional look happen. The office was one giant room, and it lacked any sort of style. Grey walls, grey floors, grey ceilings and Dell computers from 2002 dotted the landscape. It looked like a hellhole, but I am a “there is always more than what meets the eye” type of person (which could not be truer in this instance) so I just let it ride.
The man who interviewed me was named Marcus, and he co-owned the company with his father. They were English, and seemed proper and pleasant enough. I dare even say Marcus was handsome, even though it does not really matter now. He asked me standard questions about my job history, my typing skills and then laid out the work itself. I would be creating fake Craigslist ads for non-existent office buildings around the city. When people looking to rent space clicked on these ads, they would be directed to our company website. It was the spammiest system ever, but at 20 hours a week, it seemed fine and whatever to me. After all, I was not a businesswoman looking for an office space in NYC – I was a poor graduate student who needed some extra cash. Also, there was free pizza every day.
The only other woman in the office was a girl named Charlotte, who acted as a sort of receptionist, though she was also required to log just as many hours of me on Craigslist. She was very chatty, and I could tell Marcus disapproved of her incessant talking because he would occasionally shout from his office, “Charlotte, will you shut up already?!”
That was my first clue that this was not the most pleasant place on earth. During my second week there, Marcus began interviewing other women, in a “the more the merrier” sort of way. I noticed the way the way he made lewd hand gestures at the other men in the office behind the girls’ backs. He gave thumbs up and thumbs down immediately after their interviews, often saying things like, “I couldn’t stand her blouse”, or “She was too chunky.”
I should have got up and left right there, but at the time my skin was too thin, and I was afraid that maybe I just couldn’t take a joke (this is something men always say to women after they offend them). So I stayed put, and decided to quietly hate Marcus for as long as I could stand it. This was a terribly foolish thing to do.
One night he brought me into his office to ask me if I could work some overtime. I said yes, because I needed the money. He then asked what I do on the weekends and if I had a boyfriend. I answered his questions curtly, and I think he sensed the aggression in my voice. He then told me how sick he was of not only working for, but also living with his father. He exclaimed that he was so lonely, and that he just wanted to meet a woman. Then he told me I could go home for the evening.
I started dressing poorly for work. The way Marcus and the office boys talked about women’s skirts and breasts made me want to hide mine. I did not want to give them reason to look at me, to have any unsavory thoughts, or worse, talk about me after I left. I also stopped eating the free pizza, lest I put on a pound and it became a cause for discussion. It tasted bad anyway, as things given to you by people you hate often do. I tried to reach out to Charlotte, but she was cold to me, as well. I did not want to think that she was one of them, but something about the way she continued to try to please them made me suspicious of her. I could not figure out what her deal was.
Then, one day, Charlotte had a doctor’s appointment and left before me. The minute she walked out the door, Marcus and his band of ignorant men launched into the most sickening tirade against her. They tore her apart from head to toe, without any regard for the fact that I was sitting within earshot. I was not shocked at the things they were saying, as they had been vulgar and insensitive in front of me before, but I what I could not believe was that they were saying this about her. Charlotte had always been so loyal to them. I did not say anything, but instead just listened, almost paralyzed.
It had been less than six weeks since I had begun this job, and I already knew I had to quit. The work I was doing for them was a joke, and the money had only served to pay for the beers I so desperately needed in order to cope with the insanity.
But I am a detective of the truth, so I decided I wanted to try an experiment the day before I gave my notice.
As I was leaving that evening, I pleasantly said goodbye to everyone, including Marcus. I shut the door behind myself and waited outside. It was not two seconds before my name came up. They were doing to me exactly what they had done to Charlotte. My clothes? Of course they hated them. My attitude? Bitchy at best. They said things about me that I had not heard since grade school, as well as things that are far too R rated to mention here. It was maddening to listen to, but I knew it was important. In that instant, I regretted waiting so long to quit, and more than that, I regretted not standing up for Charlotte when I had the chance.
I chose to email Marcus, instead of calling or coming in. The email said, “Hey Marcus, when I left on Friday I overheard everything you said about me. You are a miserable person. Good luck with your sad life. Xoxo”. It may have not been my most Gloria Steinem moment, but if felt damn good to call him out. He never responded, nor did I expect him to.
As you may have seen on the HBO show Girls, Lena Dunham’s character Hannah was sexually harassed by her boss, who claimed he was ‘just a touchy feely guy’. The other women in her office were complacent with this, and felt they couldn’t do or say anything because he paid their checks. It was frustrating for me to watch, even five years removed from my own experience. My advice to you, as you enter the working world, is to do the exact opposite of what Hannah’s coworkers and I did. Trust your gut, and stand up for yourself. It is always the best option.
If someone is saying or doing something that makes you uncomfortable, it does not matter how much or little money you are making, you need to speak up. If there is no one in your office you can confide in (like my situation with Charlotte), speak to older women around you, even your mom (mine was the first person I called after I listened in on Marcus). Their advice and wisdom, as well as support, will amplify your decision to call out the harasser and protect other women in your situation (this is how feminism has gotten as far as it has in the first place). Understand that you will only be able to do you job well if you feel supported and safe, and no amount of money, experience or personal growth is worth even an ounce of harassment. You deserve to be respected, and no one should ever make you feel differently.
In hindsight, I wish I had made a bigger deal out of what went on in that office. It’s one of my few regrets in life, only because I know Marcus is still out there, critiquing the bodies of all his interviewees and making women feel unsafe. I hope by writing this, and sharing it with all of you, it will give us all a little more chutzpah to speak up for ourselves and each other, and hold harassers like Marcus responsible for their actions.
If you or someone you know is being sexually harassed and wants help, there are a couple places you can contact: