In my twenties, I was employed in a number of global enterprises. In this particular company, I was a Secretary/PA for one of the senior executives in the UK. Looking for more challenge in my working life, I was keen to develop my career within the company. It was a good place for that. If you performed your current responsibilities well, canvassed for support and advocacy, sought advice from seniors and then followed it, demonstrated enthusiasm and commitment, then doors to new opportunity would open.
So it was that I came to be moving on from my secretarial position, to take up a role as a sales trainee. My boss, for whom I’d worked for two years, was – he said – reluctant to lose me, but he was supportive of my career ambitions. Worth saying, he’d been an excellent boss and I’d very much enjoyed working for/with him.
He wanted – he said – to thank me for my services. Would I like to come out for dinner? I said yes, not because I desired to have dinner with him, but because it would have been rude to decline. I was his direct report, and we’d enjoyed a good working relationship for two years. He had never been even the slightest bit inappropriate with me. I was, the very next day, to leave his office and join a sales department whose manager reported to a manager who reported to him. I had no inkling that this dinner invitation was anything other than the professional thank you that he said it was.
He had meetings in London on the day in question and had asked me to book him into his preferred hotel. He said he hoped I wouldn’t mind coming into London and suggested we would eat at the hotel restaurant. You may look askance at my naivety – but I promise you, I did not suspect a thing.
He met me at the hotel and we went to eat; the meal was enjoyable and the conversation convivial. Until, that is, he suggested that we continue the evening up in his room. I thought at first I’d misheard him. I think I may have ignored his suggestion, so he had another go round. Surely – he said – I understood why I’d been invited into London, to his hotel. Didn’t I realise? I was about to cease being his direct report and – he said – this meant he was now free to behave differently towards me. With my move away from his office, my place in the order of things had – he said – changed. Apparently, that meant I was fair game.
He delivered his little speech with his usual gentle charm, but there was an edge to it, something I’d never seen before. It was abundantly clear to me that he wasn’t joking, or teasing. He was deadly serious. I was totally blind-sided.
Falteringly, as I remember, but very politely, I told him I did not want to go to his room. I didn’t know what to think, but I genuinely feared what my rejection of his invitation might do both in that moment, and to my nascent career prospects. Was I sure, he asked. Yes, I was absolutely certain. I suggested it was time I went home.
It was all very surreal. He wasn’t angry, upset or even embarrassed. He pretty much turned back into ‘good boss’ again, almost as if it hadn’t happened. It seemed he was not in the least bit bothered. It was as if I was just one of many he might proposition in the same way – a sleazy numbers game. His attitude seemed to be, some you win, and some you lose. That really made me think.
Rather than let me go home by underground, he came outside with me to see me safely into a black cab. I stood away from him, but as the taxi drew up, he pressed cash conspicuously into my hand to pay for it. He may just have been being thoughtful, but I remember thinking, the taxi driver probably thinks I’m a prostitute now. I was shaking with, I don’t know what… anger, shame? Whatever else, an acute sense of betrayal – betrayal of a professional relationship I had valued and trusted. Damn it, I’d been to his home, I’d met his wife.
I was so upset that the taxi driver asked me if I was alright as we drove away. He was very kind, but I couldn’t explain what had happened. I was close to tears. I felt so stupid. In that moment, my boss had undermined the sense of achievement I’d felt at gaining the career progression I’d so badly wanted. He’d made me doubt that I had got this on my own merit. He’d made me wonder if he’d nudged it along for reasons that had nothing at all to do with my professional capabilities or potential. And he made me dread the possibility of similar situations arising in the future, at company sales and training events for example.
And then… because his sleazy proposition had seemed such a run-of-the-mill thing to him, I began to doubt my interpretation of what had happened; I actually began to think I might have imagined it, or read too much into something that was… nothing. So I carefully approached one or two of my female sales colleagues to see if anyone else recognised the position he’d put me in, or had experienced anything similar with this man. What I learned shocked me all over again. It seemed he was a prolific offender. Not only that, but these professional ladies all assumed I’d known all along and, by implication, tacitly turned a blind-eye to his behaviour. After all, I’d been booking his hotel rooms for long enough, hadn’t I? I don’t know whether I was more embarrassed by my naivety, or by the realisation that these colleagues of mine had all assumed I was ‘in’ on his behaviour.
My career didn’t suffer as a result of my rejection of this man’s advances, and the situation didn’t arise again. On the contrary, it seemed to me that his some you win, some you lose attitude served to make this a totally insignificant event to him. I avoided him where possible but I barely saw him thereafter anyway, so far ‘up the tree’ was he from me. I don’t know either which of my female colleagues ever felt the pressure to comply with similar invitations.
There’s a lot being said in the context of the whole Harvey Weinstein business about women speaking up, or not. It’s easy to be a judge of this in hindsight. It’s not so easy though, when the object of any allegation holds a position of seniority, power or influence. It seems to me that women with far greater assertiveness and confidence than I possessed at the time, had chosen to stay silent. One simply didn’t make a thing of that sort of situation. Who was I to stand out, and where could it go, except somewhere damaging? I can make no apology for my twenty-something reticence – I never even contemplated making any kind of official complaint. With a great deal more mileage on the life-clock, I like to think I’d respond differently today. But who really knows, until it happens?