He pulls out a stack of $100 bills. He looks over my shoulder. The lavish ballroom, filled moments earlier with a hundred guests, is empty.
"This is for you to come to my hotel room tonight." He says as he shoves the stack towards me.
I was a PR consultant. He was my client. He was demanding and domineering, but until then, it had not bothered me. On the contrary, it made my perfectionism and professionalism shine. He barked the orders, but I was pulling all the strings. I had orchestrated everything, and executed it beautifully. I was on fire.
But then he tried to buy me.
Single-handedly undermining months of my hard work, he shook my confidence. Anyone who has dealt with unwanted advances at work knows the feeling of shame that ensues. It is not the kind you can prepare for, it is all consuming.
Since starting my own consultancy encounters like this, though not as blatant, have become more frequent. And it makes me wonder how do they not know that it is never okay to talk about a person's appearance, never mind their sexuality, at work?
Breaking the Taboo
The truth is, I had no idea what to do. I had never talked about it, even with my most trusted female mentors. Who feels comfortable bringing up their sexuality and their profession in the same breath?
There are plenty of reasons not to talk about it. It's uncomfortable. It's taboo. It might backfire. Either way, shutting up was never my strong suit. Plus, not talking about it makes it harder for women to close the gender gap, because let's face it, women get the worst of it.
So here is what I have come to realize over the years. It may be right, it may be wrong, but it's the best I have been able to do with a bad situation.
Don't Flatter Yourself
You might think that because your colleague has something positive to say about your appearance or your desirability, it is okay to voice it. It's not. Despite it seeming like a compliment, it is detrimental to you and your career. It draws attention away from your talents and your contributions, and puts the onus on your appearance or your sexuality.
Whether you are flattered or not, don't flirt, don't thank, just don't encourage it.
Women are judged most severely for engaging in an office flirtation, whether they instigate it or not.
Sexy Is Not Savvy
No other segment of the population has their aesthetic scrutinized like women, especially young women.
We are at the center of a male-dominated structure of desire. Learning to navigate these societal expectations, while entering the work force, is challenging at best.
You don't want people at your work place to think about you and sex at the same time. This will send the message that your worth is related to your sexuality. At work, you want the praise you receive to be about your effort and initiative.
This doesn't mean you shouldn't put your best foot forward, it just means that the low cut tops and the high cut skirts are best kept for the weekend. Don't get me wrong, what you are wearing isn't the problem (the advances are the problem), but being cautious of how you present yourself can save you a lot of grief.
I believe that women have to send the message that bringing any sexual dimension into our place of work is not okay. However, rather than antagonize, I choose to forgive and forget. I realize that bowing out may seem like admitting defeat, but let's not ascribe to the barbaric way of thinking where a win equates a loss. That being said, sometimes a heartfelt "it's none of your business" is in order. The bottom line is: don't fuel the fire.
In the words of Gandhi, "you must be the change you wish to see in the world."
I'm sure this post will raise a few eyebrows. Be sure to let us know what you think. One point of view does not a conversations make.
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