The events of sexual harassment I shared with you in Part 1 of this post happened in my first paid-job experience. Just like Margo Robbie’s character in the movie Bombshell, my encounter with Mr. M. was like hitting the wall of the harsh world’s reality. It was a tough welcome to the adult workplace. After my first experience of harassment, I thought that feeling uncomfortable and guilty due to a man’s behavior wouldn’t happen to me again; especially since my second job was in a Christian organization. Bombshell!
I grew up in a very conservative Christian family in the Pentecostal tradition. In my teenage years I was an active member and leader in a church in Bogotá’s downtown. After that, I was a student leader in a Christian group in my university for seven years. After leaving the first job, I was a very-VERY- Pentecostal girl in my twenties, ready to take on the world again! The main requirements for my new job with the Christian organization were to know the Pentecostal culture and to have experience leading groups in peace-building projects. I was proficient in both, so, hurray – welcome job number two into my life! But what I didn’t realize was that this job would require me to welcome this new boss to it too.
My first impression of Mr. P was that he was tough, super smart, and very classy. The first days in my new office I learned that he was a prominent leader in his church. He was an occasional Sunday preacher and an important member of the Church’s board. In our first conversations he presented himself as a confident but humble man who recognizes God’s work in his life. He had faced tough situations in the past, and his responses to adversity looked admirable to my eyes. My father had passed away not long before, so in my grief, I felt a strong connection to him. For me, having friendly conversations with a boss was a sign of a healthy work environment, so everything looked good so far.
Then, I started noticing that those very friendly, and personal, conversations were happening more often than normal in a boss-employee relationship. He would come to my office early in the morning, sit down and talk about non-work related issues for long periods of time. I started feeling it interrupted my schedule and ended up falling behind some of my tasks. But he was the boss, so you better be nice and keep him updated about your life too.
Then I began observing that when he entered my office his first remarks were always about my look. “Your hair looks great,” “wonderful make up—that lipstick looks good in you.” It was not always with words though, it could be a head-to-toe inspection, followed by an approving nod to my outfit. It was uncomfortable, but what could I say? He was the boss, and I loved the job. Much of my responsibilities were related to helping churches in war zones to become peacebuilders. I was so enjoying exploring the countryside, getting to know other Colombian people and non-urban settings better. I was improving my community-psychology skills while understanding my country better. It was amazing! I did not want to put my job at risk just for some “normal-friendly” comments or glances from Mr. P.
A couple of months after getting the job I cut my hair short. It was very long before, so the change was clearly evident. That day Mr. P came into the office and immediately reacted to my look by saying out loud that I looked like a cartoon named Betty Boop. Me and the coworkers present did not know her, so he explained that she was a very sexy cartoon with big eyes, short hair, and great boobs. I felt like dying of embarrassment and shame. I’ve always felt terrified of being called out for any reason in front of coworkers and he was doing exactly that talking about the cartoon’s (my?) boobs. Dear Earth, please swallow me whole.
I was feeling a strong discomfort not only because of his personal inappropriate comments but also due to his lack of leadership. I had been leading the project for a couple of months and we never had had any serious programmatic, planning, or assessing meeting. I was getting really frustrated by his unprofessional behavior at so many levels. Every two or three weeks he would ask me to have lunch with him. I used to think that was finally going to be my opportunity to talk about goals and improvements for the project, but it never happened (yes, I’m so naïve). On the contrary, I found myself listening to his reflections on being lonely, his struggles to feel young, and responding to his questions about my marriage.
A couple of times the thought that he was hitting on me crossed my mind, but it seemed so unethical that I would discard it immediately.
So, years later when I found myself watching Bombshell on my couch, I realized that he was indeed hitting on me, waiting for any sign from me to make his move, which never happened. That the long conversations about my family, my mourning process, talking about God’s love, calling, etc., had all been his strategy to make me trust him. I remembered that he used to talk about my looks to make me feel desired, which is very effective in women with daddy issues like myself. He also used to refer to his personal struggles as a means to be admired and praised. He wanted us to think, “You are so sensitive and spiritual.” I felt so idiotic! I fell for that at the beginning. I felt so used and fooled! I had been honest about my spiritual inquiries, and I had shared with him very intimate thoughts about my dad and my grief because I though he was an authoritative figure I could trust. Silly Laura! I felt so exposed.
But I am the Gretchen Carlson of this story – without the 20 million dollars of course. I stopped buying his “spiritual-poor me” lies and he knew it. I started complaining of his behavior with some colleagues until one day one member of the organization’s board called me. He asked me if I thought that Mr. P. was a good boss. I spoke my truth. Mr. P. heard about my complaints and started demanding better, higher results from my project. Suddenly, he became most interested in my decisions, actions, and budgets. The morning visits to my office stopped. He started breathing down my neck to the point of coming with me to the churches to supervise my work in person. It was not bad; it was his job after all, which he all of a sudden started doing.
But then he terminated my contract. My results were good, the communities in the project were happy, and I had renewed the financial aid, which was a huge accomplishment because the money came from a strict European organization. But once that aid was secured, he made me resign. The only explanation he gave me was to refer to some symptoms of depression that I was showing after my dad’s passing. “I’m concerned about your depression interfering with the project’s advance,” he said in our last meeting. This was an additional grief for me because I had gotten very attached to the communities I worked with and I had been dreaming about creating new things alongside them; at the same time I felt an incredible relief knowing that I did not have to see Mr. P’s face every day at the office anymore. Seeing him was causing so much distress that I was getting burned-out.
The overview I am presenting to you is the result of years of meditating on his behavior at home and in therapy. Of connecting dots, of reviewing conversations with former colleagues. Of revisiting my feelings day by day while being his employee. Just like I wrote in Part 1, immediately after resigning I ended up feeling guilty, thinking that I was weak for leaving the project without resistance, blaming myself for not being strong enough to talk to him directly to express my discomfort about everything. Thinking that I was a bad employee and a mediocre project leader. But I started wondering, why do we women feel so afraid of speaking up for ourselves in the workplace? Why do we experience such an asymmetrical power relationship in the workplace? Why do we tolerate so many aggressions?
I know that he had to resign a couple of months later. I’m not sure if it was related to my complaints, but I felt relief. This situation with Mr. P. made me think about the prominent normalization of uncomfortable behaviors from men towards women in the workplace that are not necessarily sexually explicit. I also thought how easily this happens in Christian circles where we implicitly trust each other under the premise that “we are family.” I’ve worked hard with my therapist to start standing up for myself and to advocate for other women in the workplace. It’s been a long journey, but I’m proud of my growing strength.
Laura Montoya is from Bogotá, Colombia. She is a Psychologist, devoted to work alongside communities affected by the 60 years of war in her country. Currently, she is a third-year student in the Masters of Divinity program at Boston University School of Theology. She is also a FAR intern and Office Assistant in the Anna Howard Shaw Center. She is living in Boston with her beloved husband Oscar.