walls of silence
I got a job in New York City a few years ago. I was new to the American North; I still reeked of the South. Pillsbury biscuits, Georgian peaches and Jiffy cornbread with a dollop of Daisy. Chick-Fil-A, Bojangles’ and Piggly Wiggly. I was a Southern American, in many ways. Cheerful, trusting, polite, Bible-wielding, slow-talkin’, Southern. South of the Potomac, East of the Mississippi. Paisley print blouses, plastic sunflowers hot glued on Payless Shoes open-toe rubber sandals. But I was all right, I guess. Perhaps a bit wide-eyed, gap-tooth grinning, but I was all right.
The job was with a news media outfit that covers Africa and the affairs of the black Diaspora. It was fashionable, in every sense, that media company Funded by big-name multinationals, Third World saviors, it sought to tackle malfeasance and corruption with heavy handed, not always credible citizen reportage. The company had made its name among particular Westerners and Fela-loving expatriate Africans, students of the school of thought that says African governments need a total sociopolitical upheaval to weed out the kleptocrats before anything substantial can be planted, plug in the former student union grassroots activists who give a care about the proletariat, slum dwellers, retired civil servants, and unemployed twenty somethings. A single-handed crusade propelled by American dollars and mercenary Africaphiles, this media company had recruited a handful of passionate, impressionable youngsters with a compelling allegiance to Africa. Aluta Continua! Help the motherland. We thought, or at least I did.
So I went to work. My title was a new one. Within that role, I initiated new projects, helped revive slumbering ventures, planned and promoted the awesomeness of the company — what we were doing and where we hoped to go. I tuned in, excited about every single part of the job. Everything seemed fine in the beginning.
I went out with the boss one evening to hang out after work. I was still new to the North, still new to the city. A Nigerian immigrant in his early 40s, the boss had a hip rugged fashion aesthetic, quintessentially urban: distressed brown jackets and boots, a hefty brown backpack. He was the rebel with a cause, a card-carrying activist. Encrusted in the syrupy coos of his admirers, he has fans on both sides of the Atlantic. He was charisma defined.
He’d been nice to me thus far, a listening ear for my Southerner’s rants and observations on northern culture. We walked around the street corner to a swanky new spot with a shiny glass exterior and perfumed-scented, dimly lit interior. Good living people in stiletto pumps and crisp blazers, leather and lace, hung there. He led me to a couch in the corner where we sat down. I don’t drink, so I didn’t order. We chit chatted pleasantly about school, guys, Africa, Nigerians, our past, our future.
When we get up to leave, he grabs my waist. He pulls me to his chest. He leans in for a kiss. My stunned mind stops thinking. It shuts down; I hurry to turn it back on. Easy, Chika. Don’t embarrass the man. Take it easy. I slide out of his arms with a surprising calm. I’m just not interested. I say his name for effect. It works. He gets the point, yet the perplexity in his eyes remains. I never bring it up. It’s like it never happened. It never happened again.
As time goes on, I grew in confidence at work as I befriended my fellow colleagues and further solidified my commitment to “the Africa cause” and to excel in my job performance. I began expressing my opinions about the way things were done, and offering suggestions on how I thought we could improve in production quality and efficiency. The boss welcomed the suggestions, in the beginning, but only to a certain extent.
Time after time, I begin to notice a pattern: he seemed to have issues with women, especially expressive women with a backbone.
“She’s arrogant,” he would often say with a sneer and a dismissive shrug whenever I would mention names of high-profile successful women I admired. Whether it was author Chimamanda Adichie, or a well-known female journalist, or a female politician, it seemed all successful women were inherently arrogant to him.
Eventually, my efforts at work never seem good enough. The boss is known to be hot-tempered and I was often on the receiving end of his sarcastic remarks, his angst, his frustration, and disapproval. Any gaps from my colleagues, anything they failed to do, it was usually my fault. I was the office scapegoat. Some of my colleagues noticed this. They’d throw me sympathetic glances or they’d simply try to ignore the situation and keep their eyes glued to their computer screens. After such occurred not once or twice or thrice but on multiple instances, I soon became aware of the hierarchy. My male colleagues seldom received the boss’s butchering complaints. I’d arrive to work and the boss would remain silent to my greetings. My male colleagues would arrive and the boss would say hey what’s up man and crack jokes with them and have a jolly good time. He had a propensity to engage in sex jokes with my male colleagues, the kind of lewd comedy high school boys often entertain.
My female colleagues usually fulfilled the boss’s wishes without much objection, but on the whole, it looked to me like the guys were coasting.In my role at work, I was frequently undermined. He’d constantly override decisions I had already made with his prior authorization. He’d demean my work in the presence of others. He’d sometimes shut down my attempts to join the staff in their friendly, office banter. He rarely expressed gratitude about my initiatives and strategies that were clearly having a positive effect on the company.
“Do you really think you’re directing anything?” A colleague once asked me.
The situation deteriorated. I pushed myself harder, completing massive amounts of work by staying late into the night when everyone else had gone home. Graveyard shifting, early mornings. He began shouting at me in the workplace in front of my colleagues. My cheerful, trusting, polite, Bible-wielding, slow-talkin’, Southern mannerisms were dissipating. The city was taking its toll on me. I felt like discarded mush. I planned my exit. Looked for another job.
one day he called me to meet him in the office. In the meeting, he said the company is losing money, said he had to let me go. Though I was the one who was suddenly unemployed, it was his emotions and composure that began to unravel as I fought to keep the work I had produced – works that were mine. The payment I was promised because I was not given notice of my termination in advance, he didn’t pay me anywhere near half of it. He lied and said I was never even employed, said I was just a contractor, a freelancer or something like that. My work agreement had conveniently disappeared from where I had placed it inside my work desk months ago. The intervention meeting we were supposed to have where we were supposed to present our cases before two or three mediators, well, that was conveniently cancelled. A male colleague and a prominent columnist with the company intervened, but nothing much came out of it. Perhaps, they – both guys – ended up siding with the boss.
Because the boss had already depicted me as “one of those” power-hungry, erratic, opinionated, overly assertive, selfish girls, one who eagerly challenged his authority. That false image suited his chauvinistic motives.
“You like attention,” he once told me.
Wrong. I’m actually as shy as a kiwi bird.
“You’re a career woman,” he once told me. It came out as a judgmental scoff. He’s a career man himself, but because it’s more socially acceptable for men to devote much time and energy to their professional lives, the term “career man” is seldom used.
In the workplace, women often work twice as hard as their male colleagues, yet still face the brunt of disapproval when things don’t go right, while male colleagues seem to get by. We put in overtime – a 2013 study from the Ponemon Institute revealed that women employees “work harder and longer” than men do. Another 2013 study from Edith Cowan University and the University of New England found that “women experience more rude and disrespectful behavior in the workplace, but they tolerated it more.” We continuously strive to be on the good side of the boss. Women seem to always be compensating for something. Their womanhood?
Most of the women who worked at that company hardly objected or posed a challenge to my former boss’s sugarcoated slurs and sly insolence. But I had an opinion and I voiced it. My opinions, my free-willed spirit and intolerance for nonsense cost me my job… for that I am grateful.
My former boss’s attitude toward women is not unique.
I had a conversation with a gentleman here in Nigeria who said women in positions of power always become over-bearing, whereas men know how to handle leadership and success with humility.
“It gets to their heads,” he said of women in management roles.
Looking back, I realize that my experience at that New York City-based media company was not atypical. I wrote this piece “It Happened To Me” bolstered by the courage I summoned immediately after reading a blog post a few days ago “The White Savior Industrial Complex & Sexual Harassment of African Female Aid Workers” by Lesley Agams. Agams vividly describes an assault by a male colleague while working as the Nigeria country director for the renown Oxfam GB. After the assault, the man in question handed her a contract termination letter. Many of my fellow women have confided in me, sharing harrowing real-life tales of near-rape incidents in the workplace, cases where they were told to sleep with the boss to get a promotion, and aggressive intimidation by male supervisors.
And it’s not only the overtly patriarchal, “man-is-the-head” types who are committing this abuse.
It’s also the hash-tagging, progressive, left-winged liberals garbed in trendy activist attire: thick soled boots and dashikis, plaid button-downs and worn blue jeans with worn sneakers, or cropped blazers over cotton shirts without neckties. These activists are too often propped up in a righteous spotlight. They march on as darlings of the revolution, unexamined. Their act-ivism is unstoppable… their acts, unstoppable.
I met one of these young self-titled human rights activist types. He was among those arrested for protesting during the 2012 Occupy Nigeria rallies. This guy picks and chooses his causes and apparently the advancement of women is not one of them. In his mind, women’s rights are not important enough. After I voiced my opposition to his foul groping and leering sexual advances on me, he told me “women’s rights are not human rights.”
Even the Pan-African activist revolutionary himself, Fela Kuti once sang, “When I say woman na mattress I no lie.”
Confiding in others about incidents of workplace harassment and intimidation often backfires. Some employees get terminated. Others stay in those toxic work environments after they are made to doubt their own perceptions.
Relax, calm down, maybe it’s your imagination, it’s no big deal, maybe you’re just stressed out, well you know you’re very pretty, he didn’t mean it that way, dress more conservatively, forget about it, maybe you led him on, well… ignore it, just pray about it, you can be very emotional, you’re being dramatic, um…stop working late hours in the office, say no next time, these things happen, you’re overreacting, are you sure?
Yes, I am sure.
Harassment is still harassment whether in the form of intimidation in the workplace, sexual propositions or subtle or obvious oppression.
In his 1,621-word editorial, Los Angeles-based social commentator Yashar Ali compares the emotional manipulation and harassment of women to gaslighting, a coined term referencing the 1944 feature movie in which Charles Boyer’s character employs wily strategies to make his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman, believe she is crazy. Off the Hollywood production sets, real life is full of cases where women, distressed in the workplace, keep quiet for fear of being labeled troublesome. Or crazy. They allow perpetrators to go free, especially when the perpetrator is a popular man.
If we share our experiences collectively, we can break down the wall of silence.
It’s time to tell our stories.
Chika Oduah is a journalist presently based in Abuja, Nigeria.
Follow Chika Oduah on Twitter@chikaoduah
Follow Chika Oduah on Twitter@chikaoduah