Sitting across from my desk was my team leader who asked me how my weekend was. I excitedly told him about my purchase.
‘…and it has a 27 inch screen!’
He leaned back into his chair straining the buttons over his belly and slid his eyes in my direction.
‘What do you need an iMac for? I bought my wife and i-ron and she’s perfectly happy with that. It’s a steam one. ‘
My joy stumbled and I stuttered,
‘What are you talking about?’
‘You know, and I-RON. What every woman needs, not a computer.’
And he smirked.
It was a put down, clear and simple. I was put firmly in my place, behind an ironing board, in the laundry at the back of the house next to the cat’s bowl.
I would like to report that I responded with a witty retort that ripped the smirk from his face but I can’t. There was no retort. The shock at such disrespect numbed me mute.
Instead I sat behind my computer feeling sad, heavy and angry.
Sad that a professional relationship that I thought was equal was not.
Heavy with thirty working years of these remarks from older male colleagues.
Angry that it was me who had to deal with the emotional fallout not the perpetrator.
I complained to my female colleagues and friends, crafting the incident into a pithy anecdote of sexism in the workplace to deliver over coffee or after work glasses of wine. Humour and sympathy can be very soothing but a short-term form of relief. The incident was an irritation I couldn’t stop scratching; the more I scratched the worse it got. I lost sleep.
A step back was needed to make sense of the situation and its effect on me.
The ‘i-ron’ remark was one of many put downs too regular to ignore as an anomaly. I was good enough to be used for my skills and experience but not allowed to get above myself and would be regularly ‘put in my place’.
I found a definition of emotional abuse, on the Harley Therapy Counselling Blog, which summed it up for me.
Emotional abuse (also called psychological abuse or mental abuse) is any form of non-physical abuse designed to cause damage to another person’s mindset and and erode their sense of wellbeing.
Naming the problem lifted my spirits. This was not all about me; it was about his behaviour and attitudes towards women and it was very likely that he had been behaving this way for a very long time. And it was very likely he was not going to stop.
I found further insight in this article, The Shocking Truth About Emotional Abuse in the Workplace (Huffington Post) by Dr George Simon. The article spoke about how socially conscientious employees, particularly women, can easily be manipulated by someone who uses underhand tactics to always win. Simon makes the point that women tend to have more of a need for external validation which makes us ‘more susceptible to aggressors, but it also can quickly drain the positive energy that comes from our resolve to set boundaries and makes changes’.
On reflection, I realised that I had very old patterns of behaviour inviting the opportunity for this abuse to flourish. That is:
- A desire to please which increase in the face of disapproval;
- Not wanting to be ‘difficult’ resulting in ‘sucking up’ bad behaviour to the detriment of my health and well-being
- Ignoring my intuition.
When we first worked together he declared that he couldn’t stand people who were ‘precious’. At the time, my stomach tightened and I felt sick but wrote it off as merely an odd comment. Now I know he was referring to anyone who objected to or confronted his behaviour. My intuition was strong but I ignored it.
I realised that no matter how hard I worked, I would never be able to win this man’s approval and would always be subject to his put downs. As I was on a short-term contract the situation would soon come to an end, however I needed to end the abuse to survive.
I knew a strong centre and boundaries would help deflect this abuse.
I took a few days off and rested. Re-established a meditation practice. Ate well. Reminded myself of my accomplishments. Kept a watch on my eagerness to please. Minimised contact. Spent time around more positive colleagues.
And never, ever let my guard down around this person again.
And Steel Heels says:
Pity you didn’t have an I-ron in arms length to inflict some grievous bodily harm….but in all seriousness, when someone says something so derogatory, we all find ourselves lost for words. The take downs you wished had passed your lips then buzz around your head for days. Irritating and sleep depriving like mosquitoes on a hot night.
Problem is, the comment suggests a complete misogynistic mindset and our experience would suggest that people like this feel better about themselves when they put others down. So even the most cutting and intelligent retort wouldn’t prompt any self reflection. The fact that our author identified a pattern of abuse and sought to manage it in her day to day role indicates a very strong willed and determined individual. No one would blame you for requesting immediate transfer to another corner of the world after deflecting abuse from that tyrannosaurus rex.