When I was in my 20s I won a sexual harassment settlement from a place I worked. The incident is so far behind me now that it’s been a while since I’ve thought about it, but having kids has a way of pushing long-forgotten events into focus to remind me to raise my kids with grit and awareness.
I can’t say where I worked because that was part of the settlement agreement, but it was at a restaurant that I believe no longer exists. It was within a grocery store that certainly does still exist, and I’m sure I’ve repaid my settlement back to them over the years through buying froo-froo things I don’t need.
I worked as a server, and I became friends with the kitchen staff —why wouldn’t I? They were my coworkers. I am hesitant to reveal that the men who were harassing me were of Latino descent. I don’t want to cast judgment on any race, but it’s important to my story.
The kitchen staff was a beautiful place full of dance music blaring and everyone cooking up a storm and laughing. I loved it, and I spoke Spanish, so I started speaking with more of the staff to get practice and to make friends with them.
In my mind I was stepping outside of my comfort zone to make friends. To them, I was flirting and taunting them.
Conversations soon turned to creepy ogling and winking which turned into a handful of men always greeting me with, “Hey, little tits!” as I entered the kitchen. They said it in Spanish, so maybe they assumed I didn’t know what they were saying, even though I carried on fluent conversations with them.
I couldn’t conjure the courage to say anything brave, so I slapped on a smile and scurried out of the kitchen.
Side note: The idea of anyone doing that to my daughter whether she’s 9 or 99 makes me crazy with rage, and I am not a person who has rage in her blood.
The inappropriate names turned into confrontations, looking me up and down with half smiles and heavy breathing, which turned into telling me what they’d like to do to me as they stood blocking the freezer door, where I was trying to go.
Telling them to stop only made them laugh at how “assertive” I could be, which led them to get more excited at the prospect of how I must be in bed.
My stomach was in knots as I told my boss about it. I was terrified and embarrassed of the conversations that I assumed would follow. Instead he continued to fold the napkins and said with a casual exhale, “Oh, they’re just messing with you. You know how guys are.”
My present-day self would have no part of that answer, but my 23-year-old self? Yep. I assumed the problem was me because the truth is, I am more sensitive than most people. I’ve been told this and have felt the weight of its truth my entire life.
I chalked it up to being just a losing part of being a woman. I took it as truth that men can’t control how they act, and I would just have to deal.
I retraced my actions to figure out what I did to give them the wrong idea.
I started to wonder if I just misunderstood.
I then started to assume that maybe this is just how people act, but it’s an awkward conversation to start with friends: “Hey, do your coworkers corner you and ask you for a blow job? No? Just me then, huh?”
I had no intention of suing anyone or even confronting anyone. The situation continued, and my gut continued to tell me it wasn’t right, so I had eventually complained to another male manager and had been told enough times that it’s just how they are and for me to lighten up that I knew it was time for me to go.
At the end of one of my shifts, I left a note at the host stand saying I wouldn’t be back ever because I had had enough of the harassment and no one being willing to help me.
That’s truly how I thought it would end. I simply wanted them to know I didn’t like the way it was handled, and I was out. But then I got a call from HR the next day. Their sexual harassment red flags were up, and they wanted to know all about the situation.
I told them everything that was said, and they were concerned and wanted to meet in person, so I did and told them everything again, thinking they just wanted to take a few notes for my file before letting me go.
I got a call one afternoon from the HR woman. I had asked her if I could simply be moved to another part of the store. I still needed the money after all. Her response was what pushed me to sue. She said, “There’s just a matter of …belief. You see, we just don’t…believe you.”
Yes, you’re right, lady. I love having these awkward conversations where I tell you how I was the walking sex target for men whom I thought were my friends. Yes, I love not getting paid and walking away from a job I really loved.
I don’t know what I said to her on the phone, but I know it was the end of the conversation, and I called a lawyer friend that day.
The informal hearing lasted for nearly 8 hours, with my employer and their lawyer in one room, and me and my lawyer in the other room and the judge going back and forth between rooms.
The long day ended with their side saying they would settle for $30,000. I could have taken it to full-fledged court and pushed for more, but I didn’t have that in me. Besides, it wasn’t about money. It was about speaking up and knowing I can’t live my life feeling like I’m degrading myself for the sake of keeping peace and not inconveniencing others.
On the way out the door, the judge pulled me to the side and quietly said, “I shouldn’t be saying this to you, but I’m proud of you. Great job for speaking up. Most people wouldn’t have the courage to do what you did. It’s what I would want my daughters to do.”
I was more thrilled about hearing that than I was about the money I was just given. It was confirmation that I had the right to speak up and I shouldn’t be blamed. It was a total relief for my scared young brain and heart.
We all have these circumstances that are embedded into our lives. Somewhere in a corner of my soul it has contributed to who I am, just like you have obstacles that have contributed to the person you are today.
It whispers to me words of wisdom on how to raise my kids, but it also reminds me there is no avoiding tough, skin-thickening obstacles in life, and maybe a completely smooth road shouldn’t be our goal. These gut-wrenching moments can leave us questioning who we are or our worth, and they have the power to consume us. Facing obstacles and being persistent about the truth being known builds strength, with each unsteady step becoming more confident and grounded as we climb to the top of the hill, as sure as ever of our worth and value.
I can tell that judge now that I’m proud of me, too, and it’s what I would want my kids to do, too.