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“And here’s your entertainment!” A story about workplace accountability

Ed. note: This post was originally published on the Community site.

Full disclosure, this is a story about one of my most memorable period cycles ever. It’s a story about a rough work week. But more than that, it’s a story about women’s experiences in the workplace. It’s a first-hand telling of the kind of sexist incidents that can affect our work environments, and a description of what kind of support women need to overcome these circumstances. And while extremely cliche for it’s gender implications, the story starts with my poor clothing choices. And no, I didn’t wear a skirt that was “too short” or a top that was “too revealing.”… I’ll just start from the beginning.

It’s December and this California lady heads to work in thirty-five degree weather. I am wearing a pair of leopard print flats with nylon socks, which, in case you don’t know, is not suitable for D.C. winters. I rush from the Metro station to my office with one thing on my mind: HEAT. Safely inside, I plug in my space heater and crank it up on high with every intention on having a normal workday. I go on with my normal routine — I get a cup of coffee, check voice messages and emails. And just when I finally begin to regain feeling in my toes, I suddenly lose all electrical power in my corner of the office. This was the first sign of a dark cloud in what should have been a bright blue sky. Determined to get back to my regularly scheduled program, I walk down to our facility services and request an engineer to revive my electricity. I won’t bore you with a description of all the steps it took to get things working again, but I must have really messed something up because it took not one, but two engineers to restore my power!

An hour or so has gone by and my power is back up and running. I’m finally ready to get in the zone and then I have a weird feeling, like I’m sitting in a puddle. As if my Monday hadn’t already threw me enough curve balls — I STARTED MY PERIOD. Did I mention I was wearing yellow pants? MUSTARD. YELLOW. PANTS. Just as I’m making this awful discovery, several co-workers return from a rally. Sitting awkwardly in my chair, I say “hi” hoping they do not see the stain. Flustered, I stand up, walk backwards to grab my coat, and rush over to another co-worker to admit what’s going on. (Pro tip: Everyone needs at least one co-worker they can count on when they’ve just menstruated all over themselves.) He graciously offers me his freshly dry-cleaned slacks, convinced that I’m fashionable enough to pull off the “boyfriend cut” look with his oversized pants. I run to the bathroom to try them on and it turns out, I’m not. Time to move on to plan B, which consists of turning the bathroom sink into a wash bin. Furiously scrubbing, I glance in the mirror to take in this spectacle. Me, frazzled and pantsless, terrified that at any moment someone will walk in. I can’t deny how funny the whole situation is, but finally, my pants are clean. As you can imagine, they’re also wet. I’ve successfully removed the blood stain from pants only to look like I’ve just pissed myself. But if you haven’t caught on by now, I’m a resourceful woman. In my head, this is now a secret spy mission. So as I sneak into a vacant office and hover over the space heater until my pants are dry, I feel relieved and capable of anything. I finished in just enough time to decorate our floor’s Christmas tree.

I go home, unwind and recharge for the following day. I’m sure that a day like this has to be the worst this week has to offer. I’m wrong.

It’s Tuesday and one of my supervisors hosts a training class that I’m set to deliver lunch for. Entering with sandwiches, chips and cookies aplenty, I notice how hot it is in the conference room. As I take off my sweater, one of many layers, my supervisor announces to the room: “And here’s your entertainment!” The moment moves in slow motion yet happens so quickly. I hear crickets and see blank stares. I’m floored. One moment I’m delivering a delicious lunch and the next moment I’m being marked as a stripper. Sexualized. Objectified. Not to mention the fact that he’s totally shading strippers. I’m unsure what to do, say, or how to react. I look over at the other participants, my fellow colleagues. A couple of them chuckle uncomfortably, one walks out (not sure if it’s in response to what’s happened), others just sit quietly. I sit there in disbelief and eat my sandwich, wishing that I had only bled on my pants again. But his comment lingers for the remainder of the day. It keeps me up that night.

It’s Wednesday and I’ve had time to process my supervisor’s comment. I don’t realize how much of an impact it has on me until today. I’m taken back. I’m embarrassed and humiliated. But most importantly, I know I have to confront him and the situation. When I arrive to work and see my supervisor, I’m immediately uncomfortable. In other words, I want to punch him. I decide instead that it’s time to share what’s happened with my shop steward, our union’s onsite go-to person for any workplace issues. I’m ashamed and afraid to speak out about what’s happened for fear of not being taken seriously. But in the first bright spot in my week, my shop steward is completely supportive and sympathetic! As we talk she creates a space that allows me to express my discomfort and frustration without judgment. She offers advice and suggests next steps but ultimately leaves me with the autonomy to create my own resolution. She lets me decide what’s best for me and reassures me that I have her support no matter what. I realize for the first time that my union and shop steward are truly here to protect me and help ensure that my workplace is safe and productive.

After crying it out with my shop steward, I pull myself together and prepare to confront my supervisor. I’m very nervous. Trembling actually. I ask to speak with him in his office, handy notepad in hand, shop steward by my side. She explains that I’m requesting an informal meeting to address a concern. Like me, my supervisor has the right to a witness but chooses not to have one. I appreciate the gesture. I shut the door behind me, sit down, and dive right in. I begin by describing what happened so that there is no confusion about why we’re here. I tell him how disrespectful and inappropriate his comment was, especially coming from my direct supervisor. I make sure to emphasize that people, especially women (like his wife and daughter) get harassed every day and that one place we should have control over it is in the workplace.

And much to my surprise, he’s very receptive to my concerns. The look on his face tells me that my words resonate with him. He recognizes that he not only disrespected me, but also hurt me. Rather than go on the defense, he expresses his gratitude for my work ethic and our work relationship. He apologizes almost immediately, acknowledging his mistake and taking full accountability. He commits to being more conscious and aware in the workplace. Contrary to my initial fears, he makes me feel heard and validated. We both recognize this as a learning opportunity to improve our work environment. He thanks me for being courageous enough to speak up about it. Shortly after our discussion, we make our way to the training class, now in it’s second day, that heard his initial comment. He apologizes to the entire group, holding himself publicly accountable for his mistake and the effect it had on me. It was a powerful moment.

It’s now Thursday and my period is lighter. I arrive at work with renewed love and appreciation for my union, shop steward, and mentors for supporting me. More than assisting with formal complaints and procedures, it was their support that empowered me to speak up. Despite how challenging it was, the positive outcomes were worth it. I dictated the resolution and my supervisor was more than willing to work with me. It has actually strengthened our work relationship. Not only did he apologize to me and the group, he is allowing me to make changes to our organization’s sexual harassment brochure. This is how I decided to resolve the issue — by using what I learned in this experience to help other people who work here should they find themselves in a similar situation. In the end I got what I wanted.

I have an employer that gave me the agency to handle it on my own, for that I am grateful. I am appreciative to have a job and a union that gave me the autonomy to establish my own terms on an issue that women face daily. Throughout the day colleagues from the training approach and congratulate me. I honestly don’t understand why. But after some reflection, I realize that it is small victories like this one that need celebrating. We should acknowledge the subtle transformations that shift how we build accountability into the structure and culture of not only our own organizations but in society at large.

As for Friday? My period finally ended and I was online shopping for winter boots. TGIF for real!

Header image credit: Associated Press

Washington, DC

Jessica Cendana is Cali grown, fighter for progressive causes, union activist and music lover.

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On Monday, the Supreme Court heard arguments for Janus v. AFSCME, a case that could disrupt the financial sustainability of union organizing in at least 22 statesRead More