I remember it like it was yesterday, mostly because it caused my hair to stand up on the back of my neck, and it forever changed me as a professional, and a feminist.
At that point in my life, and in the professional role I held, I saw myself as the young, female employee within an otherwise male power structure. At that point in my life, I hadn’t yet recognized that it was okay to call out the power structures that are otherwise glaringly oppressive.
It all started over a difference of opinion. Tensions had been building within this professional group for a long time – different backgrounds, perspectives, and ideas of power caused the two male leaders to disagree on a fundamental issue.
Something was said that one man didn’t like, and the other responded with a loud verbal outburst, yelling not just a raised voice, followed by a loud slam of his outstretched hand on the board room table. It was like not only was there an elephant in the room, but the elephant had trampled us.
I owe the breaking of the tension in the room to the one female colleague who became my force, and my ally, in claiming our spot within that situation. “I’ll acknowledge that your behaviours have turned this into an unsafe space, and we can’t go on in this meeting like this.”
At this point, the “instigator” explained that he, too, would not tolerate that kind of behaviour and acknowledged the unsafe space. One man, the most experienced of the professional group, remained silent. Another turned his whole chair around to make a statement of having his back to the group while the tensions ebbed and flowed.
I have never felt more uncomfortable in a professional setting in my life.
Following this, the one who had turned his back on the group went on a campaign of what I’ve learned to understand as gaslighting. He one by one met with or called each member of the team, to shame us for judging someone’s emotions. He told us that we had showed a lack of compassion for what he was going through in his life by expressing that we did not feel safe with his emotional outburst. He said that we had humiliated him by reacting to his behavior and that we owed him an apology.
My female colleagues and I didn’t buy it, and then I got my courage.
Sitting across from a table in Starbucks, I explained to this male colleague that I would have to approach the situation as a feminist and call out the blatant abuse of power and that there is no place for the use of violence and force in a professional boardroom.
He pushed his glasses up, sat up in his chair, and crossed his arms, looking peering down at me as though he was about to educate me. “Women have to understand that men will always be in positions of power in the workplace. At this point, it’s something they have to accept and find ways work around.”
My eyes just about fell out of my head.
“I wholeheartedly disagree with you.” I respectfully told this man who believed he was in a position of power over me. “This is 2016, and to think that women will passively accept being dominated and intimidated in business, you have a lot to learn.” At that moment, I found my voice, and he listened.
Through the female colleague who had called out the elephant in the room during the incident, I found out we had similar gaslighting experiences – and we were able to build our woman power together as we commiserated over coffee and vowed to each other that we’d firmly, and proudly, take our place. The one man who stood up for us during that incident has become a strong professional connection and my definition of a male ally in the workplace.
The guy who had turned his back and tried to whittle us down? I’m not sure where he has landed now, but I do know that he’s no longer in a position of power.