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I was never the kind of person who felt like sexism was an issue in Canada.
I have changed my mind.
After working in a men's clothing store, I can now say I understand. Never before (and never since) have I experienced the constant prickle of barbs against me simply for being a woman. I didn't have a particularly strong voice in the workplace simply because I didn't want to argue with people about what I believed. This meant that men felt even more comfortable oversharing with me about what they believed. Management was unwilling to admit that there was an issue, and did very little to help.
I'm going to share with you some of the instances in which I experienced infuriating and humiliating sexism at my job as Operations Manager at a national chain of suit stores. Unfortunately, these aren't the only things that happened to me. They're the ones that stuck with me—the ones that still make clench my jaw a little when I think about them. The ones that make me nervous about working with men again.
One of the first thing I noticed is that a men's clothing store can be a magnet for sexist bigots. A couple days into starting my job as manager I worked with this guy (let's call him John) who absolutely resented the fact that two out of the three managers at the store were female, and would refuse to do what I asked. If I persisted, he would inform me that the task I was asking him to do was unnecessary and would stand behind the counter watching me try to do it myself.
I got the every day creeps—men who would ask me out at the counter. Men who made uncomfortable, sexual statements about my appearance. Men who made my skin crawl because they touched me too much for someone buying a suit from me. I dealt with it by joking about it with another female manager—she had one client who would call a couple times a month trying to get her to date him, I had men trying to convince me they needed help in the change room. Such was life. But then you'd get the really disgusting people—one guy tried to slip a five dollar bill into my back pocket while I was measuring his friend's chest and verbally likened me to a prostitute. I smacked his hand away, said nothing and walked away. What would you even say to that? I was taken completely aback. They definitely hadn't been the most upscale of gentlemen, but that was a new low I hadn't experienced in person.
Another guy (let's call this one Chris) grabbed and held my ass during a photo at a convention, then squeezed it and winked at me as he walked away. When I, in shock, told another coworker, he shrugged and said, "That's Chris for you." I remember being utterly confused and angry—he would never do that to another man, not even considering that I was management. I never had the guts to report it while he worked there because I was afraid he would deny it, and everyone would call me a liar. I also didn't know if our head manager would do anything about it. If we're being honest—that's sexual assault. This guy had grabbed my hand at times, bumped shoulders with me when we were standing side by side, which I attributed to him being a friendly, albeit hyper-sexed guy—but I never would have dreamed he thought it was okay to do this to a married woman and his superior. Not only that, but he had a girlfriend AND later, he was looking for another job, and asked to use me as a reference. I reluctantly accepted because I couldn't think of a reasonable way to turn him down. What would I say if someone called and seriously asked for my opinion of this person?
This next person we'll refer to as Brian. Let's set the scene—I was a young manager with about a year of experience under my belt. Our head manager was gone on a month-long trip to Scotland. One of our most frequent workers was having some difficulties in his personal life and was really letting that affect his work (slamming doors, sighing loudly, complaining to customers, hitting the computer when it was lagging, etc.). I had figured out that the best way to get a working response from this guy was to be firm and direct. If he pulled his usual "I guess I can do that..." with no movement towards that task, I would reply that I needed it done immediately, please. He did not like this, but it was the only way to get any help from him whatsoever.
Now, not only was this person close friends with our pal John from before, but they were also roommates, along with our next topic—Brian, who also worked at our store (because bad luck comes in threes).
To be fair, Brian had been hearing plenty of stories about me for about two months, and how I was being bossy (translation: coming into my own as a manager, and realizing that I didn't need everybody to like me, I just had to get things done). Brian, like John, did not believe that women should hold management positions, and I can well imagine reveled in these tales of me, cracking the whip at this poor, defenseless employee, with no strong men around to tame me. Brian, like John, had somehow been hired at this company, though John was long gone at this point. Then came the opportunity for the perfect storm.
Brian, myself, and this unfortunate coworker were due to work a Thursday night shift, 5-9. About 15 minutes into the shift, the two of them were snacking on some potato chips at my desk, which was on the sales floor. I didn't mind the snacking, because we weren't busy, but this guy had left greasy hand-prints and chip crumbs EVERYWHERE. I went up to where he was standing at the cash register and asked him to clean up his mess, explaining why. He sighed and straightened up from hunching over the register, but made no indication towards the desk, and I had some calls to make. "Now, please. I have work to do," I said. He sighed even louder and dragged himself over, where he began halfheartedly swiping at the keyboard. Oh well. It was important that he knew he couldn't just leave a mess behind him, and I could clean it up to my standard once he was done. No big deal.
While I was waiting, I went out to the stock room for a couple minutes to tidy up for the night. The phone rang, and I answered it. It was my husband, who also worked there, but was not in management. "I just got a message from Brian... What happened?"
I was confused and said that nothing had happened, and I was just tidying up. He explained that Brian had sent him a very potent message telling him that he didn't want to cause any issues in our marriage, but he needed to get control of me. Brian had also informed him that I was not a good manager and said he was truly concerned for his fellow employee, who I had apparently brutally scolded and shamed. Furious, but crippled by that venomous feeling of inadequacy, I hung up in tears and tried to figure out what to do. I was working six days a week open to close, just trying to do my job, and dealing with difficult coworkers.
I ended up telling the assistant manager the next day, as well as apologizing to the coworker in question, who even admitted I hadn't done anything wrong and just resented being told what to do as he was in a bad mood. When our head manager returned, the incident was related to him, and he asked to see the messages Brian had sent. After a few days, he said he would talk to him, but I never got an apology and I never knew if it actually happened. Brian caused me plenty of grief over his course at the company, but this situation was one of the worst incidents of sexism I've encountered or heard of. Not only did Brian go to my husband, who had nothing to do with the situation, but he tried to get him to use his relationship with me to shame me into being a more docile, less authoritative manager.
I have deliberately not mentioned the company's name because I'm not interested in slandering them. I just want to warn anyone who wants to work in men's upscale retail that it can be an icy, unpredictable journey. For all the women who work in the field, serious kudos are due. It's not for the faint of heart. I am still shocked by what happened to me and other women at the company, especially looking back now that I am past it all. Stay firm, stay strong, and keep your chin up. You go, girl.