“She Says” with Ibie Hart
This was in 2017 and I had just been hired at a law firm. The space was very appealing to a young person. It reminded you of what Google’s offices might look like, so there were drinks, food, ping pong tables, pictures, it was just a playful space where everyone had fun while doing serious work. And I liked that vibe.
On my first day of orientation, I recognized two people. One was a good friend from elementary school, and the other was a guy who tried to date me the year prior. I knew things wouldn’t go anywhere, so I decided not to pursue anything further with him at that time.
During our orientation, he expressed his displeasure with how things ended between the two of us. But I didn’t give it any energy. I just have boundaries when it comes to who I am dating and know what’s going to work for me. However, if we were going to work with each other, I didn’t want any hostility. So, I neutralized the situation and held a friendly disposition toward him.
Following our training, we ended up sharing an office and that’s when he told me that he still liked me and wanted us to date. I didn’t think anything of it because my decision was still the same. So, I told him I wasn’t interested. I just wanted to keep it cordial and about work.
In addition to working on cases, we also had sales goals. So, he and I had friendly competitions with each other about who could sell the most. Like most law firms, the men outnumbered the women, and I would sometimes hear some of them commenting on how sexy or how hot the different women were. But at the time, I just thought that boys will be boys. They were drinking and that was just the office culture. That and, I was used to being in male-dominated spaces, so I didn’t really think too much about it.
After a month or so, the guy and I were in our office, doing some client work. I was doing really well on a call, and he suddenly reached underneath the desk to touch my leg. I was shocked by his gesture, and he replied by saying that he was congratulating me. His hand lingered there, and I told him that I didn’t like it and to keep his hands to himself. He took it off and I continued to work.
We were making a lot of money at the time, him more than me, and he began to pursue me. He knew I wasn’t interested in him, but it didn’t stop him from inviting me out. We got off work at the same time and he would do things like having a limo waiting to take me home. He also heard that I loved Broadway and purchased tickets for me to see The Lion King, would pay for me to get my nails done, and invited me out to different parties. I was single and there was no commitment, so I was just having fun. And anytime I wanted one of my girlfriends to come along, they could.
I didn’t know that other people in the office knew about these gestures, but they soon started joking around and saying that we were a “power couple” or asked why I didn’t just go on a date with him. I think the pressure in the office got to me. And it would be just one date, right? So, I decided to take him up on his offer.
The date was so above and beyond, that I caught feelings for him. Looking back, they weren’t genuine feelings, I just hadn’t been treated like that before. I reasoned with myself that people date for fun and continued going on dates. This went on for a few months, but it wasn’t anything serious and things never became physical.
Things started changing when people in the office began making comments about me, saying things like, “Look at that slut,” or messaging, “I heard you’re a good time.” These remarks caught me off guard and I became very uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure if he was making things come off as more than what they were to the other men at work, so I had to let them know that I didn’t do those things. I also let the guy know that I didn’t like how he was making me look at work and declined any further invitations.
Later that week, I saw on his Snapchat that he was at a party, which was common for him. There were two women who are also at the party, and I saw that he was being disrespectful towards them. Both girls were knocked out and he was throwing alcohol on them, calling them sluts, and making fun of them. And even though those women weren’t me, just seeing the way he behaved toward them, made me realize that I didn’t want or need any more of his gestures. That was his character. That was who he was. And he just wasn’t a good person. So, I decided to cut off non-work communication completely.
However, he still worked next to me. He continued to try to be touchy, but I was ignoring it. I didn’t see it as sexual harassment at the time, even though his actions were completely unwarranted. And he didn’t take anything seriously, so I just tried not to give him any attention.
On July 4th of that year, about a month after I cut off communication, I remember feeling sad about being single and not having anyone to hang out with. I communicated that with him, which he interpreted as me wanting him, even though it wasn’t what I said. While on the elevator, he pushed his body onto mine, and I pushed him off. And at that moment, I questioned why I even told him how I was feeling and wondered if my vulnerability caused his actions.
He was then feeling sad because of what took place and became super apologetic, saying that he misunderstood the situation. He then insisted that that wasn’t the kind of person that he was and wanted to make things right by making several “apologetic gestures, that only worsened the situation.”
I had to work the next day and I wanted to just do what I needed to do to keep moving. But I was not okay. He was still out there, and he sat next to me, and I knew I needed to talk to somebody. So, I talked to the manager, and they questioned if I was sure it was him. They then proceeded to ask me questions that made it seem like my fault. And that was when I realized that I needed someone who would listen to me. He could spin the story however he wanted, but I needed to figure out what my next steps were, so I went to therapy.
I left work that day to see a therapist and later emailed HR letting them know what happened, that I wasn’t okay, and what I needed. I didn’t get a response and because I wasn’t in the best space, I didn’t go to work. And as an end result, I wound up getting fired.
It took a while to heal from that abuse and after two years, I finally stopped blaming myself. Even though there’s a small part of me that questions what others might think of me if they heard my story.
When I look back on what happened, I wished that management at the law firm would have listened to me. They never asked questions. They didn’t bring in a mediator. They never talked to us about any kind of process to protect ourselves. There weren’t even any conversations or training on sexual harassment prevention.
Since then, I have been on guard when it comes to men in the workplace. Even if I see that they are being nice, I’m still defensive and not as friendly. I just don’t trust male colleagues.
Fast forward to me now working at Women Employed (WE), I feel safe. I feel like I came here intentionally. Systemically, a lot of women are disempowered in the workplace, and spaces like WE give us the freedom and safety to rediscover our personal and professional selves and the power that comes with that.
Now, I can empower those who have been in situations similar to mine. And remind them that their feelings are valid, what happened to them is not their fault, and that nothing they did led to what happened. It’s all on the abuser.
Are you an Illinois employer who wants to ensure the safety of your staff from sexual harassment? Women Employed (WE) now offers sexual harassment prevention training for both employees and supervisors. Need sexual harassment prevention training that meets new Illinois mandates? WE can help! Contact Ibie Hart, Director of Business Development at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.