It’s hard to imagine that any woman can honestly say she has not been harassed or objectified at some point during her life. I must admit that at some level I expect a degree of commentary and banter from men. Over my lifetime, I learned how to deflect it or play it off with humor.
However, when the recent media storm around Harvey Weinstein came up I felt a unique frustration and anger. I recently faced a similar dynamic in a work environment. What I learned is that when a power dynamic is present it puts the victim in a bind that does not present a way out. When your livelihood and career depends on someone who writes your paycheck, how do you decline their suggestive requests let alone speak up?
When I think back on my experience, I know a part of it was due to the specific phase of life I was in. I was re-entering the work force after being a stay-at-home mother. After a decade of not working, I found trying to get a job to be a humbling challenge. The gap in my resume made me feel like I was not the sought-after-hire that I was. It was disappointing since I knew being home with my children was the best preparation I had ever received to provide mental health care. Yet, I felt I needed to grovel a bit to convince someone to take a chance on me.
But someone did listen to my story with intensity and charm and said he was willing to bring me on board. That person was Walter. In hindsight, I now know that he was uniquely drawn to hiring women who he felt may be in a vulnerable place. He also knew the art of charm and humor well; not unlike most men who use their power to overstep boundaries.
He had a history that everyone kept silent about. He shared details about sex from his past. He often performed bizarre activity in his office like showing me his “workouts.” Since I was older than most of the other staff, married, and a mother, I saw that he wasn’t viewing me as one of his targets. But I soon started to hear about the boundaries being overstepped with other female colleagues. They shared stories of manipulation, fear, finding him creepy, not feeling sure how to say no to his request to work in his home, sexual comments, slaps on the rear and generally odd requests that these young women did not feel they could turn down since they needed to work.
Walter was a gifted and known clinician, so in many ways it all felt confusing. He was a bully and yet charming. It was strange to have our leader seem unstable and yet so capable to untangled complicated mental heath issues. We all privately shared that he was so clearly unwell and yet he was also so intelligent. I felt mystified by how he continued to lead and we continued to follow.
Until one day a brave young women broke the silence. She told everyone in a staff meeting that she had been touched and coerced and she was seeking our help. We could no longer ignore or gloss over his lack of boundaries as his “odd quirk.” We faced clear evidence and a witness to his behavior. Everyone started to document their experiences that they were previously afraid to share. We took our collective voice to the Board of Psychology. We all eventually found healthier environments to proceed with the work we all love and value.
Although this was stressful and painful, the outcome proved justice can be served. I hope to see more victims find their power and know they are not alone.
All it takes is one person to speak up and break the silence.