Thursday, October 3, 2019

The time to be sweet is over...

I wrote this in a facebook post last year, but I thougth it was worth reposting here as I try to get this blogging thing going again.

This article helped crystalize something that has been on my mind for weeks now.

"Southern girls don't talk about stuff like this..." This opening to the article below has me thinking. And yes, I think it's true. While we don't lack in sass -- and will almost certainly “open a can of whoop ass” if you dare to insult or harass anyone near and dear to us – many of us belles do have a tendency to stay silent when we are the target of verbal harassment. We’ve chalked it up to “good ol boy” behavior, rolled our eyes and shrugged it off. But as I see more and more friends speak up and say “me too” – it’s reminding me that tolerating this type of unwanted verbal attention is inadvertently helping to reinforce beliefs and behaviors that often turn into more aggressive forms of sexual harassment and ultimately assault.

It’s not that we are condoning or accepting… it’s that we’re SWEET. We’re supposed to be. “Acting like a lady” means that we’re just too damn nice sometimes. Case in point, and something that’s been on my mind for most of the past year…

Several years ago, my also southern female boss asked me to accompany her to dinner with a visiting executive for an important client. I was in a mid- management position, she was even higher up, and this was the one of the oldest clients of the (also female and southern) company president.

When my boss asked me to attend the dinner, I can’t say I wasn’t warned. She flat-out told me that she didn’t want to go alone, and joked that I was the only person on the team who wouldn’t sue her the next day. She warned me that the executive was an older gentleman in his 70s, who was ultimately harmless, but had a strong penchant for bourbon and a history of inappropriate remarks and sexual innuendo.

I liked my boss and genuinely didn’t mind helping her out. I laughed, said I know what good old boys are like, and we went to dinner at one of the most expensive steakhouses in Washington. We arrived about half an hour late, and the white-haired, seersucker-suited southern good old boy (let’s call him GoB for short) was seated at the bar (with a younger colleague who was part of the client company’s legal team) and already deep into the Woodford Reserve.

GoB greeted my boss, whom he had known for several years, with an effusive hello and a joking question about whether she was coming over to his hotel room after dinner. She laughingly reminded him that they were both married and he joked that she could be his “DC wife” for the night. The poor corporate lawyer was mortified and panicking until my boss assured him that she knew GoB well and was not going to cause any problems. Over the course of the meal, the GoB passed out cold and snored into his salad course for about 10 minutes. We ignored him and went on eating and chatting with the other perfectly nice gentleman. GoB revived over the main course and struck up a lively conversation that included reminisces of previous fun times in DC “back in the day,” more wishes that we would join him later in the evening, and several observations on our cleavage. “Your tits look bigger in that top” he told my boss, and told me that “yours are pretty great too.” We laughed off every comment and took nothing seriously.

I admit, I wasn’t offended at the time. I never felt threatened, or that my job was at risk, or that I HAD to go along with the dinner or agree to any of his wildly inappropriate suggestions. And when telling some good friends later about the dinner, I laughed about it and said I hadn’t realized there were still GoBs like that alive anymore. He seemed like a harmless dinosaur of a man, a caricature of eras past.

But lately I’ve been thinking about how wrong that situation was. I felt like I should go to that dinner to support my friend and colleague, and SHE felt she needed to do it to please our boss, who certainly knew of his past prior behavior, yet felt like SHE had to put her employees in an uncomfortable position to ensure the company’s success.

I mean really, how f-ed up is that? We’re talking about three smart, successful, savvy and experienced women -- used to working with politicians and executives of fortune-500 companies and in a daily working environment that was absolutely supportive of female empowerment. And yet none of us were comfortable saying no to that dinner – we felt like we had to be SWEET.

I wonder what may have happened when he pulled that routine on younger, more vulnerable women. Women who didn’t have the professional security to laugh off a joking innuendo, or to truly say no if the talk had turned into aggression. Women less powerful than us, who would have been afraid to put their careers at risk by turning down an unwanted invitation.

Working with college-age women over the past few years who come to me for professional advice, I’ve come to realize that we have to do better. We have to stop passively condoning inappropriate behavior by laughing or shrugging it off. We have to find our voice, stop being sweet, and letting out that can of whoop-ass in our own defense.


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