The Dark Side to Being a Woman in Corporate Sales #MeToo
This is a difficult post to write. I’ve never considered myself a victim and don’t want to start now. I’ve weighed the pros and cons of this. The list of cons is a mile long, topped with the fact that I may never get another corporate job. But the pros has two very important words: Mira and Izzy. My daughters. I speak up now, in hopes that one day they won’t have to.
I am choosing to SAY SOMETHING, because I can no longer justify staying silent.
I said nothing, my entire career. I kept quiet, tried to purge the secrets from my memory, because that’s just what you do. You don’t complain about it, that would somehow make you weak, you’d be “one of those girls.” The girls who “can’t take a joke.” Or the ones who “take it too personal and should just lighten-up.” That’s the narrative when you’re a women in corporate business to business sales. It’s a man’s industry after all, and us women should be honored to even get to play with the big boys.
I was going through a nasty divorce when I began my corporate sales career in 2008. Trying desperately to juggle my new life with learning how to become a single mother with three babies, while also trying to work my way up the corporate ladder.
My first job was selling engineering software to machining companies, and as you might imagine my clients were ALL men, as were my bosses. But the harassment wasn’t from my bosses or co-workers, it was from my prospects and clients.
See, the job of an outside sales rep is to meet face to face with clients and prospects, asses their needs and sell them something, in this case: software. Part of this job description is taking potential clients to lunches, dinners, happy hours, or meetings, in an effort to build a trusting working relationship. It’s the cornerstone of any good sales professional, the ability to create and nurture these work relationships.
I remember getting an email one day from a client for whom I’d recently given a sales presentation. I opened it excitedly hoping to find a commitment on purchasing the software we’d discussed. Instead I was shocked to find a photo of me, (one stolen from my personal Facebook) that he’d sent to his entire male team, accidentally coping me. It said “look how hot our new sales rep is, we should get her to come take us all to lunch.”
I was mortified. Terrified. Confused. I felt violated in a way I couldn’t even articulate or understand. But mostly I felt embarrassed and ashamed which was an odd reaction because the picture was not sexually suggestive in anyway and not one I should be ashamed of, yet still I felt exposed and vulnerable.
I couldn’t tell my boss because this was a company which provided a large source of our revenue. And what could my boss do anyway? Reprimand a client? Stop taking their money? I knew that was not an option. I knew I’d still have to work with that client, and schmooze them, and pretend it never happened, or that I wasn’t offended. My only option was to ignore it. To do my next presentation in front of a room full of men who had been talking about me inappropriately and stalking me online.
So, I stayed silent.
When I got a better job, with a bigger title I assumed clients would be more respectful. Surely they would respect my title even if they didn’t respect me, right? That would ease the awkward flirting every time I had a new prospect meeting or a client lunch. I’d remind myself that it just came with the territory, this was, quit literally part of my job description.
But it only got worse.
In this new role I was meeting even higher-powered men, ones with even bigger titles, egos and pay-grades. Men with no fear, no filter, and no respect.
I remember one trade show in Vegas where I had a dozen meetings a day. They began with breakfast, than coffees, lunches, happy hours, than dinners, and finally ended with evening cocktails. Now remember, these are official business meetings. This is the standard way corporate business development professionals conduct their client meetings at conferences. We think of it as killing a lot of birds with a few stones; fly in for two or three days and schedule meetings with as many prospects as humanly possible. Pack your schedule and get clients, that is the goal. You’re always required to brief your boss on these meetings and report any potential sales opportunities, so skipping one is not an option.
On this night, I was exhausted. It was 11:00 PM and I was to meet a big-wig prospect at the lobby bar of the convention casino. When he arrived it was clear that he’d been drinking, and said that if I wanted to keep the meeting I’d skip or planned drinks and accompany him to the strip club instead. Of course alarm bells go off. How could they not? This is a man I don’t know, wanting me to get in a car with him after he’s been drinking and attempt to have a business meeting at a strip club! I tried in vain to get out of it. I told him that it had been such a long day, and asked if we could reschedule for the next morning. But he was insistent, wouldn’t take no for an answer. Told me to lighten up and just go. It would be fine, he promised.
And once again I faced a dilemma that I’ve confronted at least 100 times in my 10 year career.
Which is: He’s a potential client, my company is counting on me to get his business, it’s my job. If I refuse to go he will probably never take my calls again, killing any chance of a sale. Or he might not take rejection lightly and make-up something to tell my boss, which will get me fired. Or the worst case, he could make something up about me, telling all the people we mutually know in the industry, ruining my reputation. This would not only damage my current job, but any chance of getting another.
When faced with these options my only choice seemed to be: just go and hope for the best. Better to suck it up and deal with it than to not be able to provide for my children. I’d put on a brave face and pretend to be someone who was “cool” with going to a strip club with a stranger in the middle of the night, because that’s just what you do. That’s what the guys would do, right?
When I got in the car he scooted next to me and began trying to kiss me, while simultaneously attempting to grope me. I backed off as politely as I could, not wanting to “make a scene” because women know that can quickly escalate things negatively even quicker. I reminded him I was there for the business meeting and started in on my company product pitch. But he wasn’t having it. “Oh lighten-up!” He said. “You’re so hot.” He grabbed my hand and put it on his groin. I pulled away, my heart racing.
But once you’re in one of these situations it’s kinda too late isn’t it? Saying “no” turns into exciting foreplay for these men. It only got worse at the strip club, where he took my presence as full consent. And was it? Was my being there, consent enough? After all I’d gotten in the car of my own free will. I had made the choice to be there, maybe that alone implied consent. That’s what I’ve always told myself; it was my fault for being there. What did I expect? This is just what happens in these situations, it’s normal. I thought.
So, I stayed silent.
At another convention a few months later, a client that I’d taken to a business dinner followed me to my room in the hotel where we both were staying. He tried to pretend his room was on the same floor. He then pushed me into a janitor closet and began kissing and groping me and undoing his pants, thankfully the janitor came back and I was able to get back to my room, shaken and crying.
Again I told myself, it was just part of be a women in a man’s industry. And I was okay wan’t I? After all, it wasn’t rape. So how could I make it be a big deal? After all this guy was the decision maker at a huge company, and my job was to get their business not piss him off.
Again, I stayed silent.
When client after client said inappropriate things, told me I was sexy, or commented on my looks I tried to just brush it off. It was common to be emailing a client about business when inevitably they’d turn it into something that crossed the line, sometimes subtly, sometimes overt and disgusting. But the worst was when they’d start texting me, because I had to have my cell number on my business cards. Some seemed to get perverse pleasure from trying to text me sexually suggestive or explicit messages while I was giving corporate presentations at their office.
I tried to ask them to stop. Then tried to ignore it. I even tried to laugh it off. But it wouldn’t stop. This was my professional reality in corporate America from 2009-2016.
Until… I gained weight. That was the one thing I felt could put distance between me and this type of behavior, and I was right. From 2016-17 I put on nearly 20 pounds semi-intentionally, and almost immediately the overt sexual behavior begin to stop. But you know what else stopped? Client meetings, it became significantly more difficult to get meetings, something I’d never struggled with before. I realized that men had been far more open to taking a meeting with me when they thought I was “hot” and much less interested when I put on weight. Companies were much more interested in employing me when I was “hot” too, in early 2017 I was abruptly let go of my corporate job without cause. Thankfully I took it as a sign that it was time to start my own business and begin pursuing my passion for helping people live their dreams, but it’s sad that I had to put on weight to get the innaproporate behavior to stop.
So why write this post if I’m no longer in the industry? Because of my reaction when I read the viral #MeToo re-post on Facebook. The one that asked women to “share” if they had ever experienced sexual harassment at work.
My reaction? I laughed. I actually laughed out loud. I thought it was a joke, because don’t ALL women face this? If not constantly, of course they’ve faced it at one point in their professional career right? I mean DUHH. I thought it was common knowledge, I truly did. It didn’t seem like any of the things I mentioned here (or the MANY I did not) were that far out of the norm when I worked in corporate business development. I guess I always assumed that as long I hadn’t been raped at gunpoint, that everything shy of that was some how …”just the way it is.” I was so used to clients, bosses, and co-workers regularly participating in sexually harassing behavior, that I’d become numb to it.
It wasn’t until I heard Ashley Judd’s interview on ABC that it all began to sink in. If what happened to her classified as sexual harassment, then what I’d lived through the past nine years, must be too. Blatant sexual harassment that was the status quo from clients, bosses and even co-workers at every company I’ve worked for. It was overwhelming recalling the countless times I’ve felt uncomfortable, violated, vulnerable and compromised over the years. That’s when I realized why I’d never wanted to see this for what it is, because it makes you feel HORRIBLE. Dirty. Ashamed. Embarrassed. Victimized. Weak.
I’ve never considered myself weak. I’m a strong women, and strong women don’t go wining to HR when a guy says or does something inappropriate. That’s what I was lead to believe. Nope, they have thick skin, they can take it. It’s just a joke after all, no harm done. All this time I thought I was being strong, and brave because I didn’t bitch about any of it. I was a real “trooper.” I subconsciously believed that if I chose not to acknowledge it, unvictimized myself in my head, then it wasn’t really that bad and I wasn’t a “victim sexual harassment.”
But now I see how weak that thinking really was. How cowardly even. How could I, a strong women, one who has no problem defending myself against anything else, let this happen? How could I turn a blind eye, thus allowing this lewd and disgusting behavior to continue to take hold in our working society? By staying silent, I was complacent. I was part of the problem.
I’ve realized that I can’t stay silent any longer.
Because this is NOT NORMAL. This should not be the status quo, for me or any other women in this industry.
I speak out now for of my daughters, and for yours. So help me God, I will do whatever I gotta do to help raise awareness of this issue in hopes that it will not become their accepted norm. I teach them to stand up and fight for themselves, and what’s right so I must practice what I preach.
It must start with me.
And with you.
If you’ve been tolerating harassment for any reason, speak up. Stand up. I know it’s terrifying. I know it’s shameful to admit, believe me I’m feeling that now, but it’s also a HUGE relief. And we won’t judge, we’ll show you the respect and understanding you deserve.
And if you’ve been the one doing the harassing… It’s time to KNOCK IT OFF. Raise your awareness. Change the norms.
Lastly I want to say to Ashley Judd, Kesha, Tayler Swift, Lady Gaga and all the women who’ve come forward in the past few years with their own stories of harassment and abuse.. THANK YOU. Thank you for validating what I’ve been through. Thank you for helping me see that it’s not okay to continue tolerating this type of behavior, and that it’s NOT part of my job, I don’t have to take it in silence and fear. Thank you for making a road that the rest of us can follow.
*I do want to say that of course I’ve had many amazing and respectful male clients, many who have become great friends and mentors. I’ve also had great male bosses who’ve treated me with respect. There are bad apples out there, but it doesn’t mean the whole bushel is rotten. Having said that, I believe there is an underlying issue of tolerance for this type of behavior in the industry that needs to be exposed and addressed.