Last Woman Standing: Harassment, Intimidation and Worse at Work

I would like to tell you my story of harassment, intimidation, and assault in the workplace. I need to tell you. But I can’t. Still, I will. You see I signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) and settled out of court (for a pittance). I am not doing this to dump, or to find catharsis. I’ve already dumped plenty on my partner, and six years on I accept that catharsis is never coming. It’s not telling my story that has gnawed at me these six years. I know my story can encourage, give strength, educate, open eyes, advise perhaps, at the very least provide a cautionary tale. I owe it to the community — by that I mean anyone who has been attacked or victimized by patriarchy. And it’s just turned 2022. “22” is my favorite number. I’ll take it as an auspicious signal.

And the ghost of all this has taken up residence and just won’t leave.

Six years on, I’ve never written a single word about this. There is a clause in my NDA (I must paraphrase, my NDA stipulates I cannot even write about the NDA!) which states “I cannot ever, in writing or verbally, sully or besmirch the reputation of the institution”. Not only can I never sully my abuser’s reputation, I am not allowed to speak or write honestly about my former employer, not even about something as unrelated as their lack of affordable student housing.

Even when I signed it, I thought that NDA clause was odd. Then about four years ago I was contacted by an investigative reporter from a major North American newspaper; it was about this. No idea how she found me, but I was too in fear of my NDA to even risk a reply to her emails. And then, six months after the reporter contacted me, it all became clear: splashed across the front page of this major North American paper, Sunday edition,

faculty quietly leave after sex abuse claims, students pushed for silence

Over a dozen faculty in fact, which anyone who’d ever worked or studied there knew was merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The exposé was written by this newspaper’s crack investigative team, a team made famous for breaking the story of a much more infamous sexual abuse scandal by the largest infamous institution on our planet; there’s a film about that, it won the Oscar for Best Picture.

What was blatantly missing from the investigative team’s thorough and damning report about my former employer was any mention of the sexual abuse and harassment happening on the staff side of the institution. (When does sexual harassment become sexual abuse? It may differ by degree, but it is all abuse.) I guess we staff all stayed silent and/or signed an NDA. I was shocked and pleased to read the exposé, I could scarcely believe it.

And ever since I have been kicking myself, especially around 3 a.m.,

Why the f*** didn’t I speak with that reporter?! What kind of coward am I?!”

I won’t talk about the specifics of what happened to me. I’m sure I’ve endangered the terms of my NDA by writing as much as I already have, and what I’m about to. I’m braver than I was then, this was before MeToo, but I’m still not that brave, and I can’t afford an attorney at the moment. So I’ll try to walk the fine line. Hope I stay on the line, but if I don’t, I don’t.

There were ten women and fifty-some men in our department. All the managers and above were white men. Each of us ten women had experienced sexual discrimination and/or harassment and/or assault at the figurative and/or literal hands of one or more of our male managers and/or directors. One particular creep stood out from the rest, for the breath and daring of his abuse: he was my direct boss. I’ll call him über-creep.

After one particularly disastrous December, all ten of us women met offsite to commiserate and discuss. Three left the room as soon as they knew where our discussion was heading: we’d decided not to leave these matters unreported anymore. We were going to Human Resources.

Seven of us went to Human Resources. We expected a sympathetic ear. The head of HR was a middle-aged woman, she was LGBT. We met with her and there would be a full meeting to hear our grievances in a few days. That meeting had way more people than we expected. It wasn’t just quantity, it was power: no less than half-a-dozen big higher ups were there. It was intimidating, but at least they were listening. There was lots of “I hear you”, even a few “I feel your pain”. Some head nodding. A team would be assembled and a thorough investigation would be conducted. We asked for data, anonymized of course; they would “look into it” (never happened). They did hire an outside expert/arbitrator, he led a day-long retreat on the matter, with the seven of us, all of HR, lots of bigwigs, and all of our managers and directors, including über-creep.

It was a platitudinous shit show.

And then two months later, three of our seven women group were suddenly promoted to manager. Mind you, the three promoted into newly created “manager” positions actually supervised no one. I did, it was in my official job description. Yet I was neither offered a manager title nor was I promoted.

Those three dropped out. Our group was down to four. Nothing else happened for months. We found a workplace discrimination attorney who agreed to take on our case.

We lost another from our dwindling group very soon after. Her husband also worked at this institution (in a completely unrelated department), he told her she “had to drop this, [she] can easily get a job elsewhere, but [he] could not”, and besides he had worked there for 10 years already and his career was really taking off. She was gone, down to three.

The next woman who dropped out told us she was 100% behind us, she would “absolutely 100% testify” if called, but upon reflection, she was after all technically not an employee but an independent contractor (we didn’t know that, as if it mattered), so “upon lots of reflection” she regrettably had to drop out from any legal action.

Down to two of us.

I never found out why the last of our “group” beside me dropped out. I did learn from a mutual fried she got a “thank you” envelope on her desk with a few gift certificates (the envelope was from my boss the über-creep — he was not her boss, by the way). I’d like to think her silence wasn’t purchased with some gift certificates. She had lot’s of data, more than me, she’d been there much longer and was a meticulous record-keeper and e-mail hoarder. Our attorney said her case was the strongest of anyone’s. No matter, here I was, only me left.

Last woman standing.

An HR person who was also a friend asked me out for a beer. He was a good guy, LGBT like me. He told me if I pursued this any further, über-creep would destroy me. I was like “okay, tell über-creep, bring it on”. My friend amplified his warning: “you don’t get it Ariadne, he will really destroy you, he is backed by the very top powers here, and he is plugged in all over the city”. I was unmoved, and then my friend even offered a glimmer of hope, kind of: “the reason über-creep is not going to leave you alone is he has already been hit by three sexual abuse lawsuits at this institution, we’ve defended him and paid out settlements to all three, but he’s been warned, we won’t defend him again.” Yes! Mister “close the blinds, take your shirt off” was on the ropes. Perhaps he could be taken out! After all, they weren’t going to defend him anymore.

That last part turned out not to be true. Defend him they did.

I filed suit with the governmental workplace discrimination body. That got everyone’s attention. They hired a very expensive attorney to defend über-creep. The judge in the initial hearing ruled my case had merit. But, there were so many cases in front of mine, my next hearing would be in one year’s time — at a minimum, it would probably be more like two years. Two years. Since my case was filed, at least I didn’t need to worry about the statute of limitations, which provided a shockingly short window of time.

I thought it wouldn’t be so bad, the waiting. Because I filed my suit they’d leave me alone, there’s no way they’d harass me with my suit filed.

Was I ever, ever wrong. All the stops were pulled out. I was relocated from my cubicle with a window you could open, to a cubicle in the middle of a dark room, tens of meters away from my own team and my direct reports, my desk placed right on the spot where a water pipe had burst, soaked the carpet, which had neither been cleaned nor replaced. I went to HR about that one, they did nothing. It stank, literally. When I was five years old our house was flooded by the nearby river. This carpet had that kind of post-river-flood stink. Sure enough I developed one hell of a sinus infection. I’m making it sound less serious than it was, it was actually a bit touch-and-go for a few weeks. Was the mold-holding carpet the cause? The doctor said it probably was, and why didn’t I just move my desk? Right doc.

At work we were required to change our email passwords every month for security reasons. I dutifully changed mine, on schedule, a short time after I filed my suit. My boss ran over to me minutes later: “did you change your login password?” “Of course.” “No! Set it back immediately to the old password, you are not allowed to change your password.” Weird. My boss went to lots of meetings, and often left things on the printer for others to pick up. I suspect what he did not mean to leave on the printer was a thick stack, had to be a couple of hundred pages, of every single e-mail I had ever received or sent since I was hired. Ah. That explained the ado about the password-change.

My work “friends” and I used to gather and play board games over lunchtime (we actually did get a full hour for lunch) a couple days a week. That stopped. No one could make it anymore. Too busy. Same went for eating lunch in a nearby park when the weather was nice. Or after work beers. Even walking with me to the subway was a no go (if they happened to meet me on the subway, apparently it was still okay to sit down next to me and chat).

I was Mutterseelenallein. A powerful, haunting German word, nearly impossible to translate, literally it means ‘alone with your mother-soul’.

One of the most dreadful of all events was the official annual after-work all-department pre-holiday outing at a nice pub. I was one of the earlier arrivals — by this time I’d taken to leaving work at 5:00 p.m. sharp— I sat down at a long empty table for twelve. There were three other tables for twelve. Everyone else arrived by 5:30. Everyone else, save one, crammed into the other three tables, or they stood. There I sat with one other fellow employee at a table with ten empty seats. No one else dared sit with me. In his affidavit, my boss had the gall to refer to this incident, and how my presence in the office had made all the other employees so uncomfortable, this incident with the tables proved I was a toxic employee. I am not making this up or embellishing this in any way. He really did write this.

I was stunned, shattered, and I was through. I cried ‘uncle’. I’d had enough. The military taught me everyone has their breaking point, and they were right. I found mine. My attorney had already been approached about a settlement, I had told him forget it, I’m taking this to court, or this shit will just continue ad infinitum. Well, the morning after the party, I called him and said “Settlement? Where do I sign? Sign an NDA too? Sure I’ll sign it. Resign my position? Hell yeah.”

That’s when the ghost took up residence.

Since I settled and signed, I have been writing full-time. My experience has certainly informed my fiction writing. A good well to tap. But don’t even think to tell me this was a nightmare I needed to live through, for the experience, or that somehow I “asked the universe” for this to happen to me, or any such shit. Just don’t. I might as well say my childhood trauma inspired me to become a writer in the first place (that topic is to be left for another day).

I’m tired of feeling like the last woman standing.

I don’t have any idea how many “minutes read” this will turn out to be, or how many potential readers I’ll lose because it is “too long”. I don’t know if the title and sub-title are grabby enough. I’m not waiting til I cross the 100 reader threshold. I have genuine faith that whoever needs to read this will find it, however few or many you that may be.

Is the ghost who’s taken up firm residence in me now exorcised? Hardly.

So, to my former bosses, most of my former co-workers — oh hell, to that whole damn institution, I dedicate this song. Lily Allen couldn’t have sung it any better.

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author, anti-patriarchal anarcha-feminist, anticapitalist, spiritual atheist, partner, parent, engineer, animal truster, people distruster, optimistic pessimist

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Ariadne Ross

Ariadne Ross

author, anti-patriarchal anarcha-feminist, anticapitalist, spiritual atheist, partner, parent, engineer, animal truster, people distruster, optimistic pessimist

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