I’ve gone back and forth about whether or not to publish this piece anonymously, whether or not I should write it at all, if I should use more specifics, or fewer. Honestly, the whole thing makes me want to crawl into a cave and never come out. (Does Netflix stream inside caves?)
I’m afraid I will be told to shut up. I’m afraid I will be harassed. I’m afraid people will roll their eyes and scoff. I’m afraid I will seem sensitive, paranoid, or that it will seem like I’m intending to be provocative. Mostly, I’m afraid of having my very real experience diminished or denied.
That said, I’ve always loved brave, honest women. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” If I told her about this experience, I bet she would tell me I should write an article about it for the Internet. And who am I to ignore Eleanor Roosevelt?
When I first started working at a community-based arts organization, a small business thriving in the heart of New York City, I was excited. The position offered a ton of responsibility that I was well-experienced to take on, in a field I was passionate about, working with people I adored.
The capable woman who’d been managing the place alongside the boss/owner for the past five years had been the company’s only female full-time employee. Once I took over for her, I’d also be the only full-time female employee, but that didn’t diminish my interest in the job.
The boss I’d had before this boss was a Manhattan VIP with an outsized ego that matched his unrivaled list of superstar clients. He was kind, funny, smart and generous. He was also demanding, irreverent and a workaholic. During the short time I worked for him, he regularly called me, “honey,” “baby,” “sweetheart,” and “bitch.” As in, “Don’t be a bitch,” or, “Why are you being such a bitch?” or, “You bitch.”
So I thought I could handle my new boss. If I could withstand harassment in one of the finest office buildings in midtown Manhattan, I could certainly withstand this small-business owner’s outsized ego.
I was recommend for the managing director/business manager position by my predecessor, the female employee I mentioned earlier, who was also a friend. The owner already knew and seemed to like me. In fact, I’d been a patron and then a freelance employee of the place for a few years, and I’d proven my trustworthiness. I was now eager to contribute to the organization in a more meaningful way. And the owner and the rest of the small staff seemed eager to have me.
There was one drawback to the position -- the owner had a notoriously big personality. He was a man with many friends, and many enemies. I thought I could handle him. My plan was, simply, to stay on his good side.
My predecessor herself had often been known to butt heads with the owner. On her way out of the position, she took me to lunch and gave me the gentle advice that I should stand up to him when I felt it made sense, that he wasn’t looking for a “yes-man.” I appreciated her candor.
The owner also told me directly that he expected me to voice my concerns and opinions to him as they related his company. He said he wanted to utilize me as an advisor, as well as a manager. I would be his "eyes and ears on the ground," he'd explained. He drilled this concept into my head during the many private chats we had before and after I was hired, so I took it very seriously. (I would later come to discover that his employees often found themselves in one-on-one meetings with him during which he rambled on about disjointed business philosophies, or vented about the people he’d felt had slighted him, and that he would also quickly forget many of his own proclamations.)
Then, a few months after I started working there, the staff members began to share with me a general sense that they were underpaid for the work they were doing. As the company continued to succeed, they said, its core employees were feeling under-appreciated. And it wasn’t just one or two people who felt this way. Despite working long hours in positions they were passionate about, they all seemed to be struggling to barely make ends meet.
So I assumed I was doing my job when I took their frustrations to the owner. But he immediately became upset and irritated. When he directly asked for my opinion on the subject, I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I decided to be honest.
I told him I'd done some research and I believed we could, in fact, afford to pay the employees a bit more, and that we were actually on the low end of the market for our industry. I also explained that I’d consistently observed the staff doing an exceptional job, and that their hard work was positively impacting our profits on a daily basis.
He was utterly enraged by my response. I was taken aback, but maintained my professionalism. He ranted for a few moments, told me everyone was expendable, and then quickly ended our conversation in a huff.
Several days later, he asked me for another private meeting. When we sat down, he asked me to again explain why I thought people deserved pay increases. Still believing it was my job to be an earnest advisor to him, I re-explained my position.
He then asked me to write down on a piece of paper the raises I thought each member of the staff should receive. He'd already written down the names of all our employees, but he’d left my name off the list.
I did as he asked and jotted down the small increases that I thought were fair, based on my previous research. He then proceeded to explain to me that he’d decided he would grant all the increases on the list. And he would not give an increase to me.
He wanted to penalize me, he explained, for having the audacity to ask for these raises for our staff. He told me I was putting myself through a hazing process by bringing this concern to him. He felt I wouldn't learn anything, he said, if I benefitted from my own boldness. He also said he was suspicious that I’d “concocted” this entire scenario as a way to indirectly ask for my own larger salary. He had a feeling, he said, that this conversation had nothing to do with our staff, that my motivation was entirely selfish.
I explained that I hadn’t brought this feedback to him to upset him, or with any selfish agenda, but because I'd understood it as my professional obligation to communicate employee concerns to him. He angrily retorted, "I don't need a wife or a girlfriend." It stung like a smack across the face.
Our meeting ended. I walked out of the office, fighting back tears as I headed to a nearby lunch spot to clear my head. I ended up sobbing in a Chipotle bathroom. I felt gutted.
I personally implemented the entire staff's raises the next day, including a pay increase for the owner himself. Nothing for me.
Prone to depression and anxiety, I became noticeably depressed. I began to lose sleep and had trouble eating. I shared what happened with my husband, my therapist, my mom, my grandma, my closest friends, and a couple of close colleagues. It didn’t matter who I told, nothing made the sting go away. People’s advice ranged from, “Get out right away,” to “Do what you have to do to stay there for a year, then get out.” Nobody thought I should stay.
But I wasn’t so sure. I wanted to quit, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around what had happened, and I didn’t want to throw away this otherwise positive professional opportunity. I couldn’t decide what to do.
My therapist encouraged me to talk it out. I felt deep remorse, I told her, as though I were responsible. I felt I’d made the wrong decision somewhere along the way. Maybe I shouldn’t have told the owner that his staff felt underpaid. Maybe, when he first disagreed with me, I should have apologized for bringing it up at all, and left it at that. Maybe I shouldn’t have accepted the job in the first place. Maybe there was no way for me to handle this larger-than-life man on a daily basis. Maybe he had it out for me no matter what.
I was haunted by his words: “I don’t need a wife or a girlfriend.” I thought about it a dozen times a day. It had been such a punch to my very being. Suddenly, I couldn’t help but feel humbled to be the only woman on the staff, the only person who wasn’t granted a raise, the only person to whom the owner would ever have occasion to say, “I don’t need a wife or a girlfriend.” When I asked my other colleagues, all males, if our boss ever spoke to or treated them similarly, they said he hadn’t.
My relationship with the owner, his company and my professional future with the organization never recovered. The owner occasionally reminded me of my “mistake,” bringing it up during subsequent pay-increase conversations, and venting about it to other employees.
I started taking antidepressants a few months later, and soon began to dramatically reduce my hours at the company, eventually transitioning to a part-time status, and soon thereafter, exiting the position altogether. The pay increase incident certainly wasn’t the only time I felt oppressed by this man, but it remains the most memorable.
Questions about what happened still rattle around in my head. Did the owner deny me an equal raise because I’m a woman? Would he have reacted the same way had a male employee brought similar feedback to him? Was he punishing me, regardless of my gender? Or is he a true misogynist?
I honestly don’t know. I know that I felt marginalized and belittled by him. I know that I wasn’t treated the same way that the male staff members were treated. I know that the owner didn’t listen to me the way he listened to the men at the company, and seemed not to respect me like he respected my male counterparts.
I’m a woman. And I’m an intelligent, professional adult who entered into this situation with the best of intentions. But I felt I wasn’t given much of a chance before I was cast aside as someone with nothing of value to offer. After wrestling with the experience for a couple years now, I’ve decided that the only option is to be brave and honest by sharing my experience.
My hope is that by shining some light on a dark time in my life, at least one woman will see her own experience in mine, and feel a little bit less alone as a result.
I don’t have a solution for what to do if you’re ever put in a situation like this one. I’m not even sure what I would do differently if I could do it all over again. But I do know that speaking out is a step in the right direction.