Nearly 20 years ago I was a young 20-something working in my first job outside of journalism; in the IT department of a large medical center in Chicago. I was inexperienced and working without a net in the early days of Internet Evangelism.
The floor where my cubicle office was located was shaped roughly like a squared off oval bisected by a main corridor down the middle with most of the ‘cubes’ around the sides. To get from a cube on one side of the office to the other, you had to either cut through the center, or take the long way around the outside of the oval, past rows of cubicles on your right and left. Each cube was probably the standard 8′x8′ and had an opening just big enough to fit a rolling chairs through, furnished in typical cubicle storage beige and blue. Nice enough in its generic way.
Most of the time I was busy and excited by this booming new Internet-thing that I had little time to bother with office banter, and while I met my co-workers and made friends, most of the people in the department were much older than I was and predominantly male “Lifers” who enjoyed generous vacation packages and shuffled through the day-to-day tasks with less enthusiasm, and, upon reflection, probably much less energy than I had at 24 years of age.
One day as I was walking briskly around the outside of the oval, as was my habit, I heard a creaking sound behind me. I glanced back to see one of my co-workers pulling his head back into his cubicle. I barely gave it a second thought.
But I began to notice that every time I walked down this particular stretch of hallway, the same person leaned out just as I passed by. He never said anything. He never did anything. In fact, he never even spoke to me around the office - I had and have no idea what his actual job was except that it seemed to have nothing to do with mine.
But the creaking of his chair and the briefest glimpse of his head ducking back into his little cube began to get on my nerves. And then it began to scare me, just a little bit. I mean, he was watching me walk away, obviously watching my ass. And. He. Did. It. Every. Time. I. Walked. By.
I started having vague nightmares of something coming up behind me and I’d wake up sweating, feeling watched, unable to go back to sleep, sometimes for hours.
I began navigating the office in the other direction, going 345 degrees in the opposite way just to avoid walking by him. But sometimes I’d forget. And his squeaking chair and the briefest sighting of his dark hair would leave me with a sick feeling.
I mentioned it to a few women I worked with over lunch one day, and they rolled their eyes. He’s married, they said, totally harmless. But it’s so weird! I’d say, isn’t it? It’s creepy. Does he do that to you? One woman stabbed a big chunk of salad with her fork and shook her head.
“Honey, it’s nothing. Take it as a compliment. Let it go.”
But I couldn’t let it go. I kept going out of my way and months passed and I forgot, and I walked by. And he did it again. And I was pissed.
I went to the CIO, a woman who had been in the IT field for all of her lengthy career. A rare female in a field dominated by men. Someone whom I admired. I considered her a possible mentor whom I hoped would guide me as I set out on this fascinating career path I’d stumbled into.
She listened to me patiently and sat with her hand folded in her lap as I told her about the persistent staring, how it had become something that literally kept me awake. And bothered me in my waking hours, too.
Then she told me to ignore it.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “He’s married. He’s harmless.”
“You’ll have to pick your battles,” she interrupted. “Is it that big a deal? Can’t you just ignore him? Go the long way around?”
I was struck dumb. What? This was now my problem to ignore? I was confused but I thanked her and wandered in a little bit of a daze back to my own cubicle.
My head spun a bit. Was it that big a deal? I mean, all he was doing was staring at my body without my permission. A lot. It’s not like he was groping me. Or saying lewd things. He’s harmless right?
The ache in my gut told me that was wrong.
These were the days when the news was full of Anita Hill blaming and bashing when all she seemed to want to do was to do her job and to do it well, without harassment. Certainly the creepy looks I was getting were in no way comparable to what must have been exhaustingly awful treatment she endured, but somehow it seemed like the gateway to worse behavior. At some point, it seemed suddenly to me, all harassers might have started as ‘harmless’ leering cavemen who peeked at asses from the safety of their cubicle caves, but then what? Did that give them permission to stare at my breasts or to touch me in passing? Or in the elevator? Or on a crowded train? Or on a dark street?
And why did I have to change my behavior to avoid him when I was simply trying to do my job?
I strode down the center hallway to the elevator bay, pressing the down button repeatedly, intending to go outside and get some air to try to calm down. Looking to my left, I saw the edge of the row of cubicles where He Sat and I knew what I had to do.
I walked down the hallway, took a deep breath, and turned right. As I passed I heard the scrape of his chair and I stopped. I heard the chair again and I knew he’d retreated back into his shell. I turned on my heel and walked back the 10 or so feet to his cube.
“Hey Bob*,” I said, standing just outside his doorway. I was trying to make my voice a normal volume, but it seemed like I was shouting. He had his back to me, but he spun around quickly to face me, staying seated. “Uh, hi,” he mumbled.
“I noticed that every time I walk by, you lean out of your office and look out. Do you need something?” Boom boom boom went the blood in my ears. I prayed that my face wasn’t red. I clenched my fists and dug my nails into my palms.
“Uh, no i don’t.” Was that fear in his eyes? Was that a bead of sweat on his greasy forehead? My own armpits suddenly felt damp.
“Yes, you do.”
“I meant I don’t need anything.”
“Fine. Then I’d appreciate it if you stopped. Leaning out. Watching me. Whatever it is that you’re doing.” I crossed my arms, trying to stop my hands from trembling.
“Ok.” He looked down, and I waited for him to say I’m sorry. Or something. Anything. But he wouldn’t meet my eyes and I felt a wave of nausea come over me. I turned and fled to the elevator, making it outside just as the tears began to flow. I hid behind the building and sobbed.
This was the grown-up career I’d wanted so much? My impressive degree and all the time I was spending at work and all of my ambition and determination had culminated in me weeping behind the dumpster because of one, low-level pervert with an ass fetish.
I didn’t work there very long. This sort of thing was not the only incident of the sort during my tenure, but it was certainly a memorable one. All these years later, during times of stress, I still have nightmares about being pursued down dimly lit, cubicle-lined hallways. I’d love to report that my subsequent professional experiences in consulting and advertising were harassment- and misogyny-free, but I’d be lying.
But I learned that in standing up to this behavior, whenever it reared its ugly head, was the only way to bat it down. Whack-a-mole style. And later when I was leading teams of people and I found myself as a confidant for the next generation of young people with concerns like this, I listened. And I did whatever I could to fix it. And I believed them.
Watching the recent news coverage of the accusations against the GOP nominee, I’m 24 years old again, feeling vulnerable and scared to walk down a particular hallway in what seems to be a perfectly safe office. None of his behavior is acceptable or excusable: Not his innuendo, not his words, and certainly not his actions.
The only way to stop this from happening is to stop making behavior like this excusable in our culture. It’s not harmless. It’s disgusting. And it limits women from reaching their full potential because they have to expend their energy to fight battles that never should have happened in the first place.
Nobody should ever have to take the long way just to do their job well.
*Not his real name.