I remember sitting on the floor of the Senate my senior year in college and getting a note from a lawmaker asking me to dinner. I was twenty one and the attentions of a married man more than twice my age were not exactly welcome. My boss, a second term senator and my mentor sat beside me without blinking an eye. In those days these were situations a woman must navigate alone.
Currently, I am teaching a leadership class at UC Berkeley, or to be more exact I’m teaching a leadership class on Zoom. My students asked me to comment on my decades of work experience and in particular the early years. I was surprised to hear myself use the words sexual harassment so frequently. A friend of mine said as a minority he felt invisible, as a young woman in my legislative career I felt the opposite of invisible. I felt like a target and especially later, after college, when I worked for a lobby firm. We had many powerful clients in the tobacco and distilled spirits industries who played by their own rules having never heard the term politically correct.
After living in London, England I had no problem picking up a cigarette, and as far as distilled spirits were concerned, I do like my gin, but this is not what made my time there toxic. The lobby firm was located in a historic house close to the capital. I had a cozy office of my own on the second floor. It had a beautiful oriental rug and dark mahogany furniture with brass floor lamps. The kitchen in our office was stocked with cartons of cigarettes and cabinets full of liquor.
The old boy network was alive and well having not yet been threatened. My boss would give me checks and instruct me to deliver them to certain candidates. I was invited to parties where I would hide in the bathroom. Politics can be ruthless. Navigating those shark invested waters was more than difficult. Looking back I realize it wasn’t possible to win. You either played or you didn’t. There was no in between. There were no higher powers to appeal to and no laws to protect you.
During my tenor at the lobby firm I got engaged. My fiancé presented me with a beautiful solitaire engagement ring before Christmas and we celebrated with our families over that holiday break. As my work at the lobby firm intensified I spent more and more nights with clients. My fiancé was at the time the great love of my life. We looked alike with the same color green eyes and dark hair. We were both Canadian and had a million things in common. We had a special affinity for each other that words can not describe. He was applying to medical schools and I enrolled in an evening graduate program at Lewis and Clark College for Public Policy. We had our lives mapped out and were planning our wedding.
When you love someone you believe nothing can ever tear you apart. This flawed point of view was fundamentally wrong on not just this point, but many others. During this period I went to many evening fundraisers and would often meet my boss, clients and colleagues after work for drinks. And, there were frequent trips to Las Vegas and Costa Rica. All of this exasperated my fiancé with good reason. I would come home five days per week after 9:00 p.m. and frequently after 2:00 a.m. He didn’t want to hold me back, but at the same time found the situation personally untenable. The unraveling of this relationship was not a quiet storm, but a hurricane and it raged on for over a year before we each had the courage to let go.
My superiors made sexual advances on a regular basis. Sexual comments, explicit jokes and innuendos were not the exception, but the norm. This was the water we all swam in. I was well paid and my job was considered a great opportunity. I also had an expensive car and an expensive town house to pay for. I became an expert at excusing myself from bad situations. I would smile at suggestive remarks and simply ignore the rest.
There is not a #metoo story in my history because although I looked naive I was not. I kept myself out of long dark corridors and deserted offices. I would poor my third cocktail in the potted plants. I had a second sense for avoiding bad situations. In short, I was skilled at avoiding the letcherous.
In the end, my boss hired his new girlfriend to work with me. She was twenty years my senior and her background was in record stores. She believed lobbying was no different from running any business. She moved into my office and I moved into the built in desk in the hallway. Even though I had won both my ballot measure campaigns, held a political science degree, had legislative experience and graduate coursework in public policy she advised me not to talk in meetings. One day she told me that it was better for people to believe I was stupid than for me to open my mouth and remove all doubt. This proved that it’s not always the guys you have to watch out for. Not long after this the two of them sat down with me and laid me off. They told me in cryptic terms that I was too assertive and not assertive enough. I kept my mouth shut and took this as a blessing and packed my bags and moved to California.
At the time banking was an excellent career choice for women. I started as an assistant to a Senior Vice President in Mortgage Lending, then I became a systems analyst, then a product manger, then a marketing director, and so on. There were no ten hour days followed by eight hour nights. I worked on multicultural teams where you weren’t allowed to hire your girlfriend to replace your high performing employee just because you could.
When I fell in love I didn’t have to spend more time with my boss than my boyfriend. I left banking for telephony and then I left that for the internet start up world. Now, I run my own company.
The world has evolved much since my days at the lobby firm. There’s still work to do, but there has been significant progress.
Love and blessings to all.