He was the director of a large organization who had just delivered a speech to my college class. I’m a soon-to-be college grad who’s looking for a job in marketing. And he had a position available that was right up my alley.
As it turned out, the job was right—but the situation was all wrong. He, a businessman more than 30 years older than me, was "attracted" to more than just the luster of my intellect, experience, and skill set.
Let me share with you what happened that day. After his presentation was over, I approached him to ask a few questions about his organization. We decided to grab a table to sit down and continue the conversation.
I sat down, and then he took the chair right next to me—on the same side of the four-seater table. I found it a bit strange, but I continued on with our conversation, which soon turned to the position he was trying to fill.
His next move was to put his arm around me. I leaned forward to separate the physical touch and continued with what I was saying. I was uncomfortable, but I wanted to learn more, so I went along with the conversation, pushing his uncomfortable gestures out of my mind.
But it didn’t end there. As he was giving me his business card, he flipped it over and wrote his home address. Then, he invited me over on the weekend—an offer that disoriented me so much I couldn’t even speak. A few minutes later, as we were leaving, I went to shake his hand—and he ignored me and kissed me on the top of my head.
We parted ways, and I drove off with a swirling mind and a turning stomach. I was hurt and annoyed, and I was frustrated by the fact that my attempts to forge a professional connection were treated this way. Why did he think this was acceptable? Why did he push the boundaries so far and use the guise of a job offering in order to slip inappropriate actions and words into our meeting?
I also felt ashamed and even wondered if what happened was in some way my fault. But rationally, I knew it wasn’t—and I wanted to do something about it.
I started by asking several women who I look up to what they would do if they were in my situation. I didn’t use his name or organization—I simply wanted to know how they thought I should handle it.
Their responses? Most of them said something along the lines of, “Well, don’t ever apply for a job from that company again,” and, “Get used to this type of inappropriate behavior, because this is going to happen to you many times.” Only one of the women I talked to said that I should mention or acknowledge it to him.
I was stunned.
But despite this advice, I knew I had to act. If I didn’t at least acknowledge his specific actions, then he may go on with what he is doing, not even realizing (although he probably does) the inappropriateness of his behavior. If I didn’t say something, then who would?
So I did. I drafted him an email, which I’ll share with you in a minute. And I continued to seek feedback from respectable women. However this time, I started off by telling them about what happened, and then I described my plan of action. And now, I got a very different reaction than before.
Every single one of the women I told about the details of my planned response almost jumped out of their chairs with joy and pride. Actually, two literally did. No one told me, “Get used to it” or, “Well, don’t work there.” It made me wonder if really, we are not afraid to fight, we just don’t know which weapons to use. We have trouble identifying the tactic for confrontation or the best way to engage in dialogue.
But we can’t let this hold us back.
Obviously, each situation is unique and needs a unique response. And sometimes, letting an incident go may, in fact, be the best option. But in my situation, I knew I needed to address with this man what I had experienced. And that I needed to share it with you—in case you ever experience something similar.
This is what I wrote:
Dear Mr. _______,
Great to hear from you. My apologies for the delayed response. I was kept busy this week wrapping up a big project as well as several school midterms. It was a pleasure meeting you this week. Thank you again for presenting at my school as well as the extra time that you gave me following the event.
I am humbled by your offer to create and execute a winning marketing strategy for your organization. However after much consideration, I have decided that this opportunity, while enticing, is not the match for me. At this time, I am going to continue pursuing my passion for business within the technology and consumer products realms.
Also, because I do have much respect for you and wish you the best of luck in the future, I feel obliged to mention this to you. As a young woman, I was uncomfortable with several of the things that you said and did (such as kissing me on the head, putting your arm around me, and giving me your home address and offering to meet on the weekend). While I am sure that you meant these gestures in a grandfatherly manner, just a heads up that such actions could be interpreted differently.
Again, I wish you nothing but the best in the future. I am glad that we met and am both thankful for the opportunity to work with you as well as what you taught me during our time together last week.
As I was drafting and contemplating sending this, he called me after 8 PM and told me that he had been thinking about me, that he was interested in hiring me, and that he would keep calling me until I responded. And with that, I hit send.
And he responded—a glossed-over response in which he “thanked” me for not misinterpreting his actions, complimented my business skills, and invited me to attend the conference he is hosting in the future.
I hoped that my email would get through to him, but his response appears to indicate that is not the case. But I do hope I at least planted the seed for him to think twice and subsequently to change his future actions.
And no matter what, I’m still glad that I spoke up. I think the reason that many women told me not to say anything was so that I would be protected and kept safe. But the truth is, no one should have to put up with harassment or discrimination of any sort, in any environment. Being “safe” should be defined not as staying silent; but instead, as speaking up and addressing situations like these ones.
Silence is what keeps victims of all types from escaping guilt and shame. Silence is what gives some people permission to do the things that they know are inappropriate. Taking action, on the other hand, is the only way to create the change you wish to see in the world. It can be scary, it can be uncomfortable, and, no, it might always work—but it’s the only opportunity we have to create a better future.