Me too … countless times, but this story is relevant to ERE. It speaks to what we do. It may have something to do with why I hate the EEOC, despite otherwise considering myself a champion for equality and equal rights.
I’m not going to provide any legal tips or best methodologies as an employer here. It’s just one of my stories. Although it probably shaped my later career path and initiatives in life, I’m not going to go into much of an analysis or provide a solution to fix the problem. I don’t have one.
I was 19 working at a national restaurant chain. I started working in the food service industry at 16, but it was my first waitressing job at an establishment that was as much of a bar as it was a place to grab a meal. It was the place I became a “card-carrying” member of the industry, certified to serve alcohol and determine when I should stop serving. It was the first time I was trained to treat my section on any given shift as my own personal business. I was proud of my job.
I was a bubbly teenager and I dressed up, and innocently flirted with patrons and my peers alike. I made great tips and I remember multiple times when I’d open a book left on the table to find a large cash tip and a scrawled phone number on the back of a receipt. I didn’t have a lot of friends there — I was too young to go out with everyone else after a shift. I didn’t fit in with the clique of mean girls that ran Friday and Saturday nights, but it wasn’t long before one of the managers took a liking to me, and he made the schedule, so I got the shifts I deserved and made good money.
He was 10-15 years older than me — I can’t remember anymore. He started asking me out after work. I started to get closing shifts despite protests from other long-term employees; I was the last server left working at night. I thought I had proven my value as a hard worker and I was getting the shifts I earned. Apparently I was wrong, because after a few weeks of refusing to wait around for him after work or go out with him on a night he scheduled both of us off, my schedule suddenly changed.
Anyone who has ever worked “industry” knows that a weekly schedule and assigned schedule during any given shift can literally make the difference between less than minimum wage and hundreds of dollars. I could walk away with $40 or $400 all completely dependent on what this manager assigned. After making it clear I wasn’t going to sleep with him, it was over.
So I quit and started looking for a job somewhere else. I got plenty of interviews, but after checking with my previous employer, I wouldn’t get a call back. At that point I talked to my mom, scheduled an appointment, and she drove me downtown to the Chicago district EEOC office.
Nothing about that process was easy. You wait forever to sit in a small room and state your complaint. While wondering if you have a legitimate claim, a government employee asks a roll call of standard questions, and as a teenager, I found myself trying to explain the situation — how a privileged, upper-middle class, white, college girl could justify a claim for sexual harassment and discrimination.Eventually it was over. I was told I’d hear back from them soon, and although it took some time, I immediately knew when my previous employer had been notified of the claim. All of a sudden, I was able to get another job. After they were notified of pending action, the blackballing finally stopped.
Eventually, I got a call back saying my employer had denied my claims. I was instructed what I needed to do to pursue the charges. It would have been excruciating. I was already imagining answering questions about my sexual behavior outside of work and meeting the defense that I had actually come on to him and he had taken me off of the shifts he was working to avoid conflict. I already knew what the response would be. I had complained to the general manager, a woman who had probably been in the industry as long as I had been alive. She believed him and thought I was a young little slut trying to f%#k my way up the ladder.
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I dropped the case. I had what I wanted — a new waitressing job. I didn’t make the same mistake again. I wish I could say that meant I took notes or followed through with my next complaint. Instead, I learned that I needed to deal with my next manager’s advances and get a second job somewhere else before calling it quits in the future. I learned how to graciously decline certain advances and deal with others. I was taught to use my “assets” knowing it would all fall on me eventually if things went South and I couldn’t count on any sort of female comradery.
After all, we do it to ourselves. How many times as women have we shunned others for sleeping their way up the ladder, not realizing how it probably all started? Many of these girls were put in the same situation I was as a young girl, and again countless times as a young professional in a male dominated industry, faced with impossible choices. I’m actually thankful I experienced it early, when it didn’t matter as much. It gave me the skills to carefully navigate the same situations in my twenties, starting out as a new attorney. I learned quickly that my wedding ring wasn’t a deterrent and I had to find a different avenue of politely declining advances and flirting just enough or allowing a small touch here and there until I could establish my voice in a room full of men my father’s age.
Its silly but so many women lawyers have a special place in their hearts for Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. I still own the DVD and my mom brought me to see the musical as soon as it came to Chicago. I even have a hat somewhere … but it’s embarrassing. Our motivation is a woman, completely smart and capable in her own right, who decided to go to Harvard to chase a guy. Yes, she stood up for herself. She turned down the advances of a professor and senior partner, losing her position and almost any hope of a career. A female peer saw a snippet of the interaction and immediately blamed her. She would have been ousted if she hadn’t been supported and “saved” by a young male lawyer who had a thing for her, who she also ended up in a relationship with.
That’s our standard. We have to watch how we dress and act constantly or risk being defined by it. Sexual advances are our fault because we invited them by being dressing up, being overly friendly, and sending the wrong message. A young woman walks into a bar alone and we say she’s “asking for it.”
Our industry is no better. I was in my twenties at the hotel bar 7-8 years ago at an ERE event in California when I leaned over the bar to order drinks and jumped when my ass was smacked by a senior talent acquisition leader. I just excused myself and found another place to sit where I knew people and felt safe. The next day, I was told a woman was spreading the rumor that I had been flashing the bartender when I leaned over the bar. Dead sober. In a suit I had worn to court the prior week. There was no mention of anything else inappropriate. Who knows what my reputation would be now if another male leader hadn’t stuck up for me, saying I was a friend that he had been talking to that same night, sober, and a “button-up attorney — there’s no way she would do that!”
It’s a shame that it took a years’-old Hollywood scandal to bring to light what is commonplace for so many women on a daily basis. As I said, I don’t have the answers. I just wanted to contribute one of my stories to the countless others out there. Do with it what you will.