In the summer of 2019 I was recently unemployed after quitting a job of five years due to an unorganized acquisition. After just two weeks of my unemployment, I found a job roughly ten miles from my apartment that seemed too good to be true. I would be developing a customer service department from scratch; something I’d always been passionate about.
I was excited to be considered for a role in the production film industry, an industry I’d never worked in; I felt like my 16 years in customer service were a testament to what I could bring to the business.
On the first day of my new job, I wanted to make a lasting impression. I knew that the office had a casual dress code, considering my new boss interviewed me in board shorts and a ratty old Ron Jon Surfshop t-shirt. I chose to wear a dress that hung below my knees and with sleeves. I felt that my attire was professional and imagined that it would make a good impression for the newest and youngest member of the existing team.
On that first day, right at 8am, we dove right into my job duties and responsibilities. My new boss and I sat at the big lunch table in the back of the office to review my training binder, since the office was just an open space with individual desks. When we were through and I was walking to my desk, he complimented my “really pretty” dress. He told me it was nice that someone took the dress code seriously, especially since it didn’t have to be him. The moment he said that I wondered what this comment even meant; what dress code was he referring to when there was no dress code in place. I felt embarrassed that he made this comment in front of four other people. For a moment I paused but the comment was quickly forgotten for the rest of the day while I learned the CRM system and completed my onboarding paperwork.
Driving home that day I was on cloud nine. My job duties were clear to me. I was expected to connect with clients by calling all 900+ clients in the existing book of business to introduce myself and my new role, call clients on the first day of their service to make sure everything was going okay and visit three clients a week in person. I was so excited to get back to work and dive into this new venture of my career!
When I arrived at work the next day, my boss told me that we were going to visit three clients. I was excited for the time in the car together. I wanted to pick his brain about the business and share all of my ideas that I had overnight for my role and how to improve our customer’s experience. Quickly into the drive to our first client, a commercial director, I was informed that I was hired instead of a more qualified male. This must be what breaking the glass ceiling feels like, I thought to myself. What an honor that all my previous hard work has landed me this job! As we met our first client, I was told by the director of the shoot, “it’s about time he hired some good looking women for the office.” I was caught off guard at the comment, and I made a brief mental note to never visit them again.
Still inflated with flattery about my obviously impressive background, I wanted to get back to that conversation in the car. Was it the processes I developed that helped my last company’s customer satisfaction score raise? Was it the twelve years I’d spent in customer facing roles in retail? Could it be that my multiple promotions in five years and final title as Director of Customer Experience proved that I worked hard?
I shyly asked, “If you don’t mind me asking, what was it about my background that encouraged you to choose me over a more qualified candidate?” His response was simply, “part of your job will be taking clients out for coffee or lunches. As you can tell our male clients would more likely accept a meeting from a pretty female than some guy.”
I was deflated. He mentioned nothing about my passion for customer service. Had he even read my resumé? He wasn’t referring to my career in customer service but instead he was referring to my physical appearance. I don’t remember anything about the rest of that day or the clients we visited, but I do remember driving home and sulking.
For the rest of my first week, I was giving myself pep talks on the way to work. I know my value, my work history is impressive and I am smart.
On the last day of my first week, I opted for casual Friday. I wore jeans and a short sleeved blouse. Upon walking into the office I was called out for my casual look compared to my “beauty queen” attire (read: dresses from Target) every other day by the only other female in the office.
At 8am on the dot, my boss pulled me into a storage closet, the only private space in the office, and said that we would be meeting a client the following Tuesday. He said that this had been a long time client until they started working with our biggest competitor a few years back. They chose to work with us the following week because our competitor was fully booked. The importance of this meeting was going to make or break them back into working with us. He urged me to get familiar with their file and review their previous bookings. I could ask any question that I had to make sure that I was prepared for this meeting by Tuesday.
I was so excited, week one and I’m being roped into important client matters. My expertise is paying off. I am the new face of this company and things are moving fast! I walked out of the storage closet with a game plan in mind. I would review everything, take notes and ask all my questions at once. My thoughts were interrupted by a voice from the storage closet, “oh, and wear that dress that I like! The one with the cleavage!”
I was mortified and felt ashamed. In my head, I questioned myself “did I really wear a dress with cleavage to a new job? What is wrong with me? That comment was a joke though.” In reality, everyone in the office laughed, including the other female who also shrugged towards me as to non-verbally tell me, “welcome to hell.”
In the afternoon, my boss and I went to visit more clients. I was told that our big meeting on Tuesday would be the last time he drove with me and I would be on my own after that. Again, I was instantly flattered by the thought of being trusted so soon into this new role.
When we arrived at the job location, I was introduced to a couple of our drivers who led us to our client, a music video producer. We made it to the location at lunchtime so we took the opportunity to sit down and have lunch together. I bonded with our client about the beach, being an LA native and our favorite comedians. During a lull in the conversation, my boss asked if anyone had seen “The Marvelous Miss Maisel”. One of our drivers mentioned that was his favorite show, while I shook my head no. My boss replied towards me with, “You’d love that show! She also has nice boobies”. When no one replied he said, “well, she shows them in the first episode.”
After an embarrassingly and quick finishing of our lunches our client got up, shook my hand and said he had to get back to work. Our drivers disappeared and I was left alone with my boss.
He was annoyed at how rude the client would be to not say bye to him. They’d been working together for years. He added, “You’d really like that show, if you’re into comedy.”
On my way home from work, I had never been so happy to see a weekend in my life. I had the whole weekend to forget about this awkward incident and he probably would forget about it, too. That night, when my partner got home I told him about the lunch time conversation. His only reply was, “what grown man says the word ‘boobies’?” and they walked into the other room.
Surely I was making this out to be a bigger deal in my head and of course my boss is just immature. If my partner wasn’t worried about this unprofessionalism, why should I?
On Monday, I was back to giving myself a pep talk on the way to work. I know my value, my work history is impressive and I am smart.
Tuesday morning was the big day – the big meeting that proves why I am the best candidate for the role. I had a busy morning of making calls and I was proud that I had contacted at least half of our clients by that time. Another milestone to show my worth.
When we arrived at the location, we were greeted by one of our drivers on set, who told us the client wasn’t even there. “You made this trip for nothing,” he said, followed by laughter from him and my boss.
My boss explained that he and our driver went way back, and that they’re known as the office pranksters. He said that there was a huge spider in the toilet once and pulled up a picture on his phone. At first, I saw a hairy tarantula in a toilet bowl and looked away. I squealed that I hated spiders. He laughed and showed me again. This time, I noticed in the corner the silhouette of a penis. I looked away and he shoved his phone in my face for the third time and I loudly told him, “I see it. Ha ha,” with extreme sarcasm.
The two men laughed as I stood there completely in awe of what just happened and not knowing what to do. I was supposed to be getting back into a car with one of these men, the man that just showed me an inappropriate picture. “What grown man says the word ‘boobies’?” displayed in my brain and I quickly snapped out of it. There was nothing wrong about this situation because I wasn’t in any physical danger. Just two immature men, I thought.
A few silent moments went by and my boss told me that he slammed his thumb in the door of the trailer. He pulled up another picture and I quickly stated, “I don’t want to see that!” He then turned his phone to me and there was a picture of a hand bandaged up and where a thumb would typically be, there was a penis.
I shot him a disturbed look. I couldn’t say anything, he was my boss, but this was out of control. I felt helpless reminding myself that I was about to get into a car with this man. This man who had the power to fire me if I spoke up. My mom always told me that if a man harassed me and I spoke up, I would be branded as a problem for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to be a problem, I wanted to be known as professional and strong.
He must have had an instant moment of clarity or regret because he registered my face and immediately said, “I shouldn’t be showing you these pictures because they’re sexist.”
I was so embarrassed that it happened, but I was convinced that I couldn’t do anything about it. I thought about not showing up for work the next day, but I still went. And the day after that. And the day after that. He took a last minute vacation with his family for the rest of the week, so I was ordered to stay in office and not visit any more clients.
On my drive home that Friday, I realized that this was the weekend I’d never been so happy to see. I cried all weekend long. I cried in the bathroom so my partner wouldn’t hear me, and I cried myself to sleep at night. I cried the next morning on my run. I felt shame, like I had done something wrong to be objectified and for the workplace to feel like a locker room.
I wrote and rewrote a resignation email. I fantasized about sending it and a feeling of empowerment that would rush over me as I started the job search over again. I decided to share the resignation letter with my best friend for feedback. She encouraged me to send it and never go back. She assured me that all my feelings were valid and all the comments he made were inappropriate. I felt heard. The weight was lifted off of me for feeling like any of this was brought on by something I did.
I sent the email first thing on Monday morning at six AM and copied the Office Manager. My first and final paycheck was deposited into my bank account at ten AM. I finally felt that rush of empowerment I’d been longing for all weekend but it was in the form of freedom. Freedom from unwanted comments and photos. I was a bit disappointed that the Office Manager never reached out to me to gather more information on the situation, but I wasn’t surprised.
The job I ended up finding after is for an amazing company that I’m currently still at. I was hired for my background and my enthusiasm in customer service. I’ve learned the value of being open and honest in the workplace and speaking up right away when something is not right. Our company believes in clear is kind and are encouraged to always ask clarifying questions or clear up any mixed communications. In the twelve months that I’ve worked here, I’ve become a much more confident individual inside the workplace and in my own personal life.
I’ve also moved on from the relationship I was in where the harassment was viewed as not a big deal. I ended an eight and half year relationship because support from a partner is necessary and shouldn’t be optional. I am doing work everyday to be a better person to myself, admiring my triumphs, learning from my mistakes and celebrating my career. I’m also working on being a better friend, coworker and partner for the future.
The woman I am today feels so much pain for the woman I was a year ago when this all happened. She felt alone and isolated and that she would be forever known as a problem if she spoke up. I wish I could have been as brave as I am today back then. I wish I had known that while I may not have been in physical danger, the verbal harassment I endured and the emotional toll it took was all valid. I hope that in sharing my story people will know how much support is out there for all of us.