There is a movement underway across the country and at the base of it all, some are asking "why now?" My answer is: we've waited too long already.
I wrote about this months ago, but I was advised by a friend and mentor that publishing it might hurt my chances for career advancement as I am pursuing a clinical fellowship. I wrestled with my options, but finally decided that it was too important. I could no longer bury myself in a veil of hypocrisy and ignore the courageous national campaign going on around us. For the first time, women are speaking out in numbers too strong to stifle and aggressors can no longer bank on silence.
Most women have a #metoo story. It's time we told them.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published a sobering report in the summer of 2016 that stated three out of four victims of workplace harassment fail to tell anyone "because they fear disbelief of their claim, inaction on their claim, blame, or social or professional retaliation."
They nailed it.
I was in my early 20s the first time I was on the receiving end of inappropriate sexual innuendo. I was interviewing for a position as a general assignment reporter at a network affiliate in Vermont, a state I loved. He was much older and he was the lead anchor at that time. I interviewed with the news director, observed the 6:00 news, then the anchor offered a tour of the station while everyone else went out to dinner. We were alone in the newsroom. That's when he asked me what kind of lingerie I liked. I quickly left the station that night, disillusioned and my hopes of employment dashed with my abrupt exit. I wasn't interested in filing a complaint. I didn't want to stir the pot. He was well-known and beloved in the community and I didn't want to jeopardize my budding career and job prospects by being known as a troublemaker. So, I applied to other stations and moved across the country to Idaho for another reporting job instead. It wasn't unusual for a powerful man to make a pass at a younger, inexperienced subordinate, I said, as I had heard that it happened to others.
I was a doctor by the time it happened again. It was just last year. And this time, his power had nothing to with his position and I wasn't his subordinate. Older and wiser, I was in my third year of residency. Because I developed an interest in the struggles of war veterans, particularly those suffering from traumatic brain injury and PTSD, I chose to see patients in the community based outpatient clinic of the Department of Veterans Affairs one day a week. The man who violated my personal boundaries wasn't my professional superior. He wasn't another physician. He wasn't even a patient. He was a receptionist, the guy who scheduled and checked in my patients, the one who took my patients' calls and passed on messages.
He was also a veteran himself.
He oriented me to the building when I started, showed me to my office and showed me how to use the intra-office messaging system that allows us to communicate with other providers and staff. He showed me that all the messages are automatically logged, saved to email for future reference. They were all dated and time-stamped with the author’s name displayed on the top.
Several weeks of professional conduct and work-related banter went by, all over the messaging system. Then, he asked if he could disable the message-logging feature on my computer. He said it cluttered things up and caused a lag in my system. I hesitated at first. My gut told me there was something wrong with the situation, but I ignored it. He hadn't demonstrated any concerning behavior at that point and I believed he genuinely wanted to help. Although clutter wasn't a big deal to me, I thought the request was innocent enough that when he insisted, I acquiesced.
He disabled the message logs at the end of the work day. The very next week, he began sending messages complimenting me - my dresses, my appearance, my accomplishments. I wasn't sure how to respond. How many times in a single day can you thank someone for compliments? I began to feel uncomfortable and I tried to tell him so. The messages persisted and he eventually asked me out. Over and over, every day I was in the office, he flirted with me. I once ignored him and when he wouldn't stop messaging, I told him I wasn't responding because I needed to see a patient, hoping he'd take the hint. He replied, "I'll wait."
And wait he did. He was at the front desk. He checked in my patients and when they left, he checked them out. He knew when I was alone and when I wasn't and he took advantage of that knowledge every day.
Finally, I knew we had to have a face-to-face discussion to get this to stop. He came to my office and I told him I was engaged.
"That's okay, I'm married," he responded.
He was married, which made his harassment even more infuriating. I told him that I was committed to my partner and in no uncertain terms, I told him I wasn't interested. He appeared nervous and anxious. He sank into his seat and avoided my gaze. He whispered "okay," said that he understood. I mistakenly thought that was the end of it.
The very next time I turned on my office computer, he messaged me to ask why I don't wear an engagement ring. He persisted, despite our conversation. He later sent me his phone number and Facebook page, just in case I had thoughts of being unfaithful.
I considered reporting this behavior, but I always talked myself out of it. I minimized it, thought I'd be making a fuss just because I felt uncomfortable. I was also left frustrated by the fact that if I ever did want to report it, it would be my word against his. The messages weren't being logged, after all. He saw to that. He premeditated this and manipulated me to disable that feature on my computer. Annoyed, I decided that he didn't get to call all the shots. I took photographs of his messages on my cell phone so that there would be some record if I ever wanted to file a complaint.
But still, I lived with this in silence for many weeks. It was awkward and uncomfortable, but I sidelined those feelings in hopes of maintaining harmony. Months later, I received a phone call from my supervisor on my day off. He told me there had been some complaints by women in the clinic and that's when reality hit me.
It wasn't just me.
There were other women and we all shared the same story. We were all brand new to the clinic, all highly educated women taking on a new challenge. I found out it began exactly the same in every case - disabling of the messages to prevent proof of his harassment, followed by the incessant compliments and inappropriate propositions. All of us kept quiet, unaware that others faced a similar struggle, until finally, someone broke the silence. When two came forward, it was clear there was a problem.
Then, there were three.
At least five women had endured his sleazy advances. Three of us had taken photographs of the messages. And so, an investigation was born. We all filed formal complaints, gave statements, and sent in the photographic evidence. He was transferred to another clinic while they investigated the claim and then, silence...until several months later.
We were informed that this person was returning to the Department of Veterans Affairs in the very same office and in the very same role where he harassed at least five women. He reclaimed his former position as if nothing happened. Not so much as an apology from him or HR for what had gone on. One of the other women stayed because this was her job and she couldn't leave. I, however, left and abandoned plans to resume my work there as a psychiatrist because as appalling as his predatory behavior was, what was more appalling was how someone so egregiously in violation of appropriate workplace behavior could be given back his old job, where his accusers would be forced to work with him again, despite five independently written statements and the accompanying photographs of his own words, his name, date, and time attached.
If the VA didn't value women enough to stand up for us and terminate his employment, then why was I, as a doctor, contributing my talents there? I decided it wasn't worth it and as much as I love the veteran population and as much as I loved working with the rest of the staff at that particular VA, I couldn't return with a serial harasser at the front desk, checking in my patients and keeping tabs on me during the workday.
As I continue in my last year of residency, I'm looking toward the future and I'm reminded of my friend who warned me not to write this for fear of it destroying my career opportunities for next year. It was the same sentiment I warned myself about all those years ago at that Vermont television station.
Ultimately, I decided to buck that advice this time and it's thanks to all the women who came before me. I'm not 23 anymore and this problem won't end until we all speak out and hold accountable not only those who break the bounds of professional behavior and human decency, but also those who allow them to get away with it.
As a footnote, I did a google search for the anchor who asked about my lingerie preferences on my job interview all those years ago. According to the Peoria Journal Star, he was reportedly fired recently from another station over an alleged "personnel issue.”