Entry Level Lessons

*DISCLAIMER* What you are about to read is my personal account of something that happened to me, but affected others in the workplace in uncomfortable ways who were both men and women. The hope in sharing is not to place blame, but create conversation that encourage open, respectful, and safe work places for people of all gender identities.comicstrip2

I went through a period of being embarrassed to admit that I stocked groceries for my living. For two years I unpacked boxes of cereal and cans of beans to pay rent and buy food. The subjects that I went to school for, painting and creative writing, were reduced to hobbies. I was ashamed that my costly education could not propel me farther.

Originally, I could not explain the relationships I had built with coworkers, or the strength to which I believed in the values of City Market. I could not even explain how invested I was in doing my job well, in working hard, in teaching and learning. I never chose to talk about how, through working there, I really got to know my pride, how I learned to work in a system that, for better or for worse, has bosses bossing bosses, or what leadership can mean in a place where morale can get really low. At the Co-op you say hi to people just because you see them all the time. You recognize people by the bread they carry, the carts of eggs, or the buckets of kimchi. I valued my work at a place where resources were accessible, where I was part of my community landscape, and where the wage was somewhere above minimum.

I feel publicly comfortable saying that leaving my grocery job made me sad. I want to share some insight I gained from the experience.

I encountered a really uncomfortable situation in my workplace. Part of me feels like I am doing wrong by talking about it, that I am embarrassing myself or my coworkers. But I learned so much from the minor altercation.

My manager sent some inappropriate e-mails. It was almost a year ago now, much warmer, and I was sprinting to make a bike fitting after leaving work. My schedule was packed as I prepared to bike across the country. I remember reading the first email on my cell phone before I rushed into the store, and then again as I fled to my studio to set up for a fundraising event. His e-mails began as a response to my thanking him for his generous donation to my Bike & Build fund. At first I was confused by his persistent messaging, then convinced I was being pranked by a friend.

Mostly they were erratic, but eventually the e-mails built up to calling me pretty and sending his phone number. In the grand scheme of things, the exchange was fairly tame, and pretty normalized. I had similar interactions with coworkers at other work places, and to think I would somehow skate free in the safety of the Co-op was fairly naïve.

Coming from a family of females, a single mom with three sisters, male harassment in the work place was almost natural. My sisters were undergoing far more inappropriate and even unsafe situations in their places of employment. Our habit was to make jokes about it, to roll our eyes and move on.

When I returned to work after the weekend, though, I was pretty uncomfortable. A part of me questioned what gave him the idea that I would be an easy target. I examined my clothing choices, and wore more masculine attire. I worried that my friendliness was misinterpreted. I tried to keep busy.

The sentiment quickly escalated. I felt silly for once thinking He really valued my work ethic when maybe he just had something else in mind. I was pissed for every time I had applied to a higher job, had an interview, for being denied. I was disgusted by all the times I asked Him to meet with me one on one,  times that were spent alone with Him in a small conference room as I became excited for some problem I thought I had solved. I hated my male coworkers, for hanging out with him upstairs, being paid more, laughing, talking about guy things and making inappropriate jokes behind the sales floor. I know I did not feel this way before the e-mails, and it was hard to be level headed after.

The short interaction happened during a pretty overwhelming time in my life. I was preparing for the bike trip and distracted by heavy family issues, among other “life things”. A large part of me decided that my feelings towards the week of e-mail discomfort was over-dramatic, amplified by what I already had going on. I talked to some of my male coworkers, those holding leadership positions, who were very sympathetic to my manager. They expressed remorse for his drinking problem, and felt bad for his loneliness. “He does this to us too,” they said. “If we lose him, we lose all the great things he did for that department.” “Don’t leave the Co-op on that note, or they won’t want to hire you.”

“Well, did you ask him to stop?”

So I sent a stern e-mail, allowing him the pass under the condition that my female coworkers, almost none of whom had the opportunity to move pass an entry level position at that point, would not be subjected to the same discrimination.

Halfway through the summer, I received a text from a coworker. Almost to the other coast and on the side of the road with my bike, I read that someone had discovered our unsettling communications. I must have mistakenly left open my e-mail on a computer where I volunteered. It was bad timing, the bike trip at this point the most immeasurable challenge I had ever faced. The conversation came back to haunt me. I was mortified, embarrassed. My team mates were furious for me but also at me. I am so outspoken about right and wrong, it did not make sense for me to let this go. How could you not say anything? Why would you let him get away with that? And the worst-

Who else do you think he is doing that to?

I was lost after the trip ended, sad to leave my team mates and heartbroken about the tragedy that befell us. My plans to live out West were dropped. I was confused, my sense of pride and strength drowned out by my sense of loss, for our friend and leader in the accident, for my team at our dispersal, for a moment that was gone as soon as it began. I needed home. I was broke. My family wasn’t a safe place. I needed a job.

I received an e-mail from the very same manager, asking for me back, telling me he saved a position for me. It was entry level, bellow the one I left at, and I would have to wait for a higher position to open again. I scoffed at the boldness, shocked and suspicious.  But in a time of unfamiliarity and lack of structure, the recollection of those who had worked with me and encouraged me to do this trip, who helped fund the journey, and the comfort of a familiar pattern were too tempting. At the co-op, I had a team.

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When I agreed to go back, I could not justify the interviews again, the disappointment, the shame of working as hard as my male coworkers and being stuck bellow them, progressing at half the speed as the people who started the same time with me. I could not commit to full time, and I knew I had to find a different job.

My first day back, my manager did not stop walking when he addressed me, and certainly did not look me in the eye. I laughed to a coworker about it. For the weeks to come, he never looked at me again. I wondered if he was surprised I accepted the job offer.

I started feeling dumb. Is this what I deserve for my entry level job?

Over drinks, I tried to explain the gender imbalance to some coworkers. They were angered, citing different upper managers who were female. “I will judge an employee by their work ethic and not account for their gender.” I could not articulate, drunk and emotional, that their biases were subconscious, that they were not aware of the uncomfortable environment their female counterparts were subjected to.

I found myself struggling to be the same leader I had previously prided myself on. I was angry, hurt, and resentful. I fixed my attention on every flaw, unnoticed by my managers, of my male superiors and fumed about criticism given to me, regardless of how minuet or relevant.

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A huddle (team meeting) following the holidays was led by the new store general manager, ours absent. An announcement was made that our grocery manager was on administrative leave until an incident was investigated. My stomach flipped and I could feel my face get hot. I remembered the text I got over the summer. I felt guilty. I immediately reported my experience.

Two weeks later I was asked to sit in an office with two operations managers and a union steward. I told them what happened. I printed the e-mails. I started to tear and was offered a tissue. I hated myself for being so emotional, and spending energy on a single person’s stupid decision that affected me so thoroughly. I was told it wasn’t just me, that other girls had come forward. I was given a number to call a therapist that gives three free sessions. My manager was fired. And that was the end.

I did not feel victorious. Very few people spoke to me about it again. I gave my notice and left with such mixed feelings. In the same place that I had found my core support group, I was betrayed. The remainder of my time at the market I spent trying to create conversations around gender equality and respect.

I think I have always been an extremely nostalgic person. I wanted great change to come from the exposure, my female coworkers given support and empowerment. I had believed that the co-op was more just than any other work place, that its employees were valued and respected. While those on the floor along side of me had that perspective, it didn’t feel like upper management cared.

I was confused. I had such good relationships with people all across the store, those working the lower paying jobs on the sales floor and those working up top too. But still, I felt the injustice was barely noticed by those who were not very close to me. It was as if the greater store cared more for maintaining an image of equality than actually enforcing it.

Those who did talk to me about what happened, it is important to note, were extremely supportive. I could tell they were just as unsettled and hurt that such a situation could slip by in the place they loved to work so much.

I hate that, despite how great of a work place the co-op actually is, this was not an isolated event. It was ongoing. No one knew not because they did not care, but the behavior did not strike people as unusual. Under this manager’s influence, men excelled not because they were much better than the female equivalent, but because he was more comfortable with them. The big picture is that we work in a society where men are most likely to be in power, and we have become so used to men treating women’s worth unequally in terms of their value as workers. Sexual harassment is normalized, to the extent that it is not a problem until it is physical assault. And sometimes not even then.

It took distance and time for me to understand that so much of my reactions were responding to triggered family trauma. The wound of gender inequality is not one opened fresh by the desperate outreach of my former manager. It is something I have witnessed with my single parent, who more than once developed relationships with men whose trust she needed to secure her job, and ensure she could feed her children. The power dynamic, however willingly entered, becomes a system of abuse, both metaphorically and so often literally.

I wish I could say that this was an accident committed by a lonely man alone, that the oversight in my workplace was unique. That is not the case. These are the real struggles of working class women in America. It is eye opening to see that even in my community where I have so many people supporting me and whom I trust, that this kind of accident can happen.

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