Five years ago, I was slapped at work by a male colleague.
There, I’ve said it. It’s out.
I have battled with talking or writing about this for five years. Why? Partly because I’m ashamed and blame myself.
Partly because I don’t know if it’s worth making a big deal about. Partly because I was so shocked that it even happened.
I am a female lawyer in Australia. I now work for myself, partly because of the sexism and discrimination the I have been the subject of and witness to in other workplaces, and partly because I don’t want to work for a man anymore.
Five years ago, I was working for a company with a toxic work environment; the managers ruled by fear and violence, both verbal and physical.
The senior solicitor and I were having an argument in front of the managing director, the three of us alone in his office.
I could see the mistakes that the other solicitor had made that were costing the company money. The managing director seemed to be enjoying the conflict. The senior solicitor said that I “should be slapped”.
I persisted in my views about how a particular issue could be resolved in a better way, and so he slapped me across the right shoulder.
The slap didn’t hurt. But I was shocked. I finished my point to the managing director and left his office. I mulled it over. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t quit.
Now? I cringe at the unacceptable behaviour, but I am still conflicted over the incident. Yet, I feel like I should stand up and talk about it, because the behaviour that goes on in workplaces against women needs to be talked about.
When I think about that slap, I consciously try not to blame myself. No one deserves to be assaulted, let alone by a work colleague.
But I also wondered if I wouldn’t have been slapped if I hadn’t persisted pushing my view point in front of the managing director, whilst the senior solicitor was there.
I could have handled the situation better by speaking separately to the managing director, instead of making the senior solicitor look bad in front of me.
But we were in a closed office, and I wasn’t going behind his back … and nothing warrants being slapped at work. This is what goes around and around in my head.
I accepted the work environment and stayed. I persisted there because I could see a day in my future when I could leave, and I had to wait until then so that my resume wasn’t too busy.
In a way I was stuck, but I also thought that leaving would not be very resilient of me.
The legal profession is always talking about having resilience in your career, particularly when it comes to mental health and hard time. I thought I would be failing if I left.
But by doing nothing about the slap for so many years, I have condoned it. If we don’t immediately stand up to violence, or do something about it, then it no doubt happens again because we have allowed it to be okay.
I often think about the saying that you ‘train people to treat them how they treat you’. I don’t know what I did to bring on the slap, but I certainly did nothing to stop it from happening again, to me or someone else. Then I feel ashamed because I feel like such a push-over.
I have conflicting feelings about the slap but I also know that I want workplaces to be different. I was brought up to believe that I could do or be anything.
I am well educated and extremely capable, but that does not mean that I have the same opportunities in the workplace as males.
I have been the subject of a $60,000 pay gap, with a male colleague who actually did less than I did. I have also been “jokingly” accused of providing sexual favours to achieve results, because the men had to bring me down for achieving what they could not.
We must address this. The pay gap, sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour is not acceptable. But it will continue if we accept it. Gender equality will not be handed to women by men; it starts with each of us.
We need to be assertive, and actually say something when something inappropriate is said or done.
We need to stand up for other women in the workplace if we see that they are not confident enough to say something for themselves. We need to stand up for decency.
I am finally talking about this now because it’s time to have this conversation. I want to stand up and speak out, and hear from other women about what is going on in their workplaces.
If we don’t call it out, it won’t change.