Racism, Sexual Harassment & America’s Corporate Culture
One woman’s story about coming to America with a bag full of dreams and a drive for success.
Sexual harassment: First timer
When I was 25 years old, I moved from Colombia to America with a bag full of dreams. The first three years were really tough—being away from family, learning the culture, and doing all of this alone. I was determined to apply legally for a green card. Three lawyers and $25,000 later, I became a legal resident.
The first job I got that could sponsor my working visa was with a small brick and mortar company. A 45-year-old man who was really nice owned it. He was married, had two or three kids, but was not happy with his wife. He used to tell me horror stories about how she and her kids were not appreciative of all his hard work, and that they had a million-dollar home and this and that, but his wife was a bitch.
This man flew my coworker and me to a Las Vegas trade show. I was innocent, and I was excited to go on my first work trip. He invited me to a show, and took me gambling, and bought me drinks. I honestly did not realize his intentions. Thankfully I got sick from drinking. He left me alone in my room and the next day at the office he apologized. He never tried anything again.
I remember thinking, “What would this old guy want from a girl that was 20-years younger? Yeah, that is how naive I used to be.
The corporate world
“I want to be the gum in your mouth.” It was the first time I had heard anyone at work say something like that. This guy was African American, and he drove a “Silence of the Lambs” van to work. I was not comfortable around him. He would come to my cubicle every morning wanting to talk. Because my legal status depended on employment, I was a friendly coworker. I was nice to everyone. I did not want to get into trouble.
After the chewing gum comment, I went to the HR manager. They asked him to stop walking to the corner of the building where my cubicle was. That was awkward. I often feared he would be waiting for me outside in the parking structure. I would make sure each day and night that his van was nowhere near my car, and I walked as fast as I could to and from my parking spot. I carried a can of Mace to feel safe.
I don’t remember now if he left the company before I did in 2008. He was not the only male that thought they could approach me in that manner. In the five years I worked for this company, I had other men try their luck with me. There was the one who said he wanted to “sign his name near my belly button,” right after a meeting me in the boardroom. He was the same one who said I had the “sexiest toes in the company” when we were alone in the elevator.
He was a white male in his 50s, who was widely known to be a complete jerk to the women in the marketing department. He was condescending, poorly-spoken and rude.
And then there were the Latin managers. They brought their machismo culture into the mix. They expected me to go along with it, and when I did not, I was told I was like an earache—something that was always there that they couldn’t get rid of (Chilean guy in his forties). Or one of my favorites: I was told that I was the most “Gringa-Colombian woman they had ever met”. What does that even mean?
Maybe it was because when they wanted to grope me while dancing at a sales meeting after-party, I would stop them cold? Or, maybe it was because when I was asked to meet them after a work dinner at the beach by myself, I would not show up? Yes, both of those things happened. I did not show up to that clandestine rendezvous one night, and at the business meeting the very next day, I was told to “shut up” and that “nobody cared about what I had to say,” by the same guy I left hanging at the beach the night before.
I can’t tell you what date or year this exactly happened. But I remember his name, the freckles on his face, his words, how strong his thighs held me when we were salsa dancing, and that this happened at a Dominican Republic resort at an annual sales meeting. I called my husband crying that night—never mind the $800 in roaming charges I had to pay out of my own pocket. There was no WiFi available at hotels back then. International calls were ridiculously expensive.
Years later, this same person was fired from the company because one of my ex-coworkers finally had the balls to complain to HR about his behavior. He forcibly tried to kiss her and grind against her in the parking lot. Sick. I can still see his face so clearly.
This was the same company another manager was fired from when a male coworker spoke to HR after he had been shown a video of one of the girls’ crotches that he had filmed under the table during one of our staff meetings.
At a different Latin American sales meeting for this same company—that included management from North America—my ex-coworker got a text from a VP to come meet him and others at a bar. I was with her and 15 other Americans. I was the only one who spoke Spanish and could tell the bus driver where to take us to meet the other half of the group. Oh, what a surprise it was when we found ourselves walking into a strip bar/ brothel. And the face of the VP who had made the call? He was livid. I told him immediately that we were leaving. I said I did not care if the men stayed, but I was taking the women back to the hotel.
We all had had drinks that night. That is typically what you do after a long day of meetings, sales and marketing talk, and brainstorming sessions on how to win markets. You end your presentations, join the groups for dinner and then, like responsible adults, you go out to have fun, right? In case you were wondering the VP agreed to leave that night. But what would have happened if my ex-coworker would have shown up alone to that strip club in downtown Cartagena, Colombia?
Smile, it’s free
At my next job, the men conducted themselves differently and there seemed to be less sexual harassment. At least it wasn’t as evident to me anyway. It seemed as though someone had been burnt by a lawsuit in past years because one of the first things I noticed when I started working there was that if a woman entered the elevator, the men in the elevator would immediately look down at their feet. They wouldn’t even answer your greeting. It seemed as if they were trying to avoid all possible human contact. What extremes!
It took time for me to get used to this for sure. Years would go by before I finally gat someone in upper management to reply to a friendly good morning. It is unusual, coming from Latin America, not to say your proper good mornings, good evenings, pleases, and thank yous. If you are not replied to in return, insecure thoughts of being ignored or discriminated begin to cross your mind: perhaps it’s because you are a woman of color with an accent in a low-ranking position? How does one know or not know, for sure? My dad always said to smile and greet others. It’s free and can make someone feel so much better. I’ve stuck to that advice.
Then I got assigned to report to a supervisor who was Mexican and in his early forties, and who used to kick me under the table during meetings so I would hush up or not answer in a way he did not approve. The same guy, who asked me if I was okay with people in the company having extra-marital affairs during our first meeting. And he added this too: “By the way, you have the worst resume I have ever seen, so you owe me for pushing for you to be hired.”
Note to younger self: If your answer is, “no, I don’t necessarily agree with people having affairs outside of their marriage,” you will be out of their inner circle so be prepared.
And then there was my co-worker who was a Mexican male—the same age as me—who had a volatile temper and yelled at me during a meeting that was attended almost entirely of all men? Another told me he didn’t speak Mexican even though knew that I am Colombian (American male, mid-40’s). His first joke originally was, “I don’t speak maid,” but adjusted it when he decided that not speaking Mexican sounded more proper.
Of course, I’ll never forget the guy (Argentinian male, mid-50’s) who said that he would love to have been Hitler and to have gotten rid of all the Jews, unaware that my husband is Jewish and his family, survivors of the Holocaust.
At several different workplaces, I was told to “fuck off” at different times, especially when bringing up what, in my opinion, was the right thing to do for a project or a business. For example, someone thought it appropriate to tell me to go “fuck off” when I addressed the fact that Latin American markets and subsidiaries were as important for the company business as the North American markets were and deserved to be given equal priority in the supply chain, or with packaging design projects or localized language product literature and product launches.
There was another time that I was told by someone in the in-house graphic design department that the graphics manager had specifically told them to work on my projects last. Even though at a meeting with the planning department we had clearly established priorities and deadlines for both North and Latin American regions. When a week passed and I had not seen any of my requests completed by the due date, I found out what the graphics manager had told the team. I got furious. I walked into his office — he was a white male in his sixties — and asked if what I had heard was true, and furthermore, why would he do something like that? He answered, “What the fuck did you want?” and to “Fuck off”.
I did fuck off. I went to his supervisor and told her what had just happened. She called a meeting and offered to be a mediator. I remember asking him why he would do something like that to me? Why would he use those words? I remember asking him, what if this had happened to his daughter? What if it was his daughter who came home and told him that a male co-worker had treated her like that? He looked at me, straight in the eye and said, “You leave my daughter out of this.” That was all. We reached no conciliation. I resigned a few months later.
What does it mean to be told to “fuck off” when making a decision about the product line you manage? I began to wonder if you would ever be allowed to make a fair, educated, profitable business decision you weren’t a white male with an MBA from a reputable American school. Or if you did make one, would you even get credit for it? Get that promotion? That raise? That award? I don’t think so. Not in my case. Especially when you are a thoughtful, well-spoken person.
When English is not your first language, you are already walking with a wobble in your walk. Your accent. I am bilingual, but do have an accent. Some people find my accent cute, or sexy, or beautiful, or they can’t understand me — or don’t want to understand me anyway. But it’s there and I am proud of it.
For years I worked hard to not have one. I felt accomplished when people said that my accent was very light, and they could not pinpoint where I was from. That, at one point in my life, meant I had succeeded in America. And then, suddenly I felt empowered and embraced my identity. I just stopped caring what other people thought. Finally, I simply accepted my bicultural background.
I remember when I first moved to America, I would take offense when someone would refer to my country, Colombia, as having the best snow in the world, or use another silly allusion to cocaine. I used to get entangled in arguments defending my country and promoting the good and trying to prove a point to an American citizen with a very narrow view of the rest of the world. I learned to let go and told myself that it was their problem, not mine. Then I began to take a stand for myself. I reclaimed my accent and started speaking my own truth.
Because of my strength of character, I was promoted to manage a product line. I was to plan the launch in the market, find the clients, and sell the product to meet the business plan. I was the only woman in a team of about twenty men. I remembered the women in the merchandising group wishing me luck while they shared the frightful stories of a few other women who had worked for that group. They advised me to stay strong.
Well, they were right. I had to learn quickly to not feel intimidated by their F-bomb loaded language. And I got used to not getting offended by burps and farts, nail clippings, and loud voices. I figured out a way to work around this without getting distracted — earplugs do help.
I learned to set boundaries and to even let my temper get out of control without feeling remorse. I became one of the guys!
I did send one person to hell via text once. It does not make me proud, but I felt it was necessary so that he (white male late 30s) could clearly understand that it was not okay to keep texting me on a Sunday when I was out and about with my husband and my then 3-year-old-daughter. This was one day before leaving on a week-long company trip. I remember it was a weekend in January. I remember I was in San Diego, and I remember that I was going to see this co-worker on Monday at 8 a.m. in Las Vegas.
Could he not understand the concept of Sunday with my family? Could he not wait?
I did not remain silent. I was patient, but when I felt a situation was out of control, I always followed the proper channels of communication. Whenever I brought up incidents like this to the HR group or upper management, they told me they could not move me from the group I was in or from under the supervisor I had. I never understood why other women could ask for this and get results. I could not. I had not been in the company long, I suppose. Quickly you figure out that HR works more for the employer than the employee. And then sadly you stop trusting them.
I resigned once. A VP asked me to give him 90 days to do some research and get back to me with a proposal. The proposal was that I was to be moved but still reporting to the same abusive manager. During another instance, I expressed how overwhelmed I was with the workload and being a new mom because of the limited flexibility they offered and the lack of support and teamwork from my manager. All I wanted was good work/life balance.
I was told that if I wanted to be successful in the company I just had to get tougher.
There was another time when I was told that another manager in the company had told the public relations agency to not bother to interview me for the product launch or have the press call me for interviews. He supposedly told the head of the PR agency that I did not speak English and nobody would be able to understand me.
How did I know of this? My direct manager told me. I asked him, “You heard so-and-so say this about me and you did not stand up for me? Did you not call him out on this lie when you were seated next to him at this meeting?”
I immediately went to the person who made the comment—a white man in his late forties—and confronted him with what I had heard.
He denied it. He said he never said anything like that. He lied to my face when I—the Spanish speaking woman—confronted him. I told him that I could not believe that a manager in his position, who had worked for the company for so many years and attended so many harassment trainings (many were required), did not see how he was putting the company at risk of a lawsuit for discrimination by explicitly telling others that because of my origin I was not qualified to do my job.
When you are in product marketing you work for months—sometime years—doing marketing research, traveling and preparing internal and external presentations when getting ready to launch a product that will impact the company business. When days before the market launch a co-worker tells the PR agency that you do not speak English and he should be the one talking to the press about your product, that hurts. That feels like being punched in the stomach. That is called back-stabbing. I told him all that, to his face and walked out.
There was a time when I had a meeting with the planning group. I was there earlier than my planner, with the head of planning for Latin America (a Latin guy, mid-fifties) and the head of project management (an Asian man, mid-forties). This company was diverse. The harassment was too.
The Latin guy starts the conversation by saying to the other guy that this has to be a serious meeting because I don’t have a sense of humor, so let’s get startedwith talking about my “junk” in the warehouse.
I said, “Excuse me, what did you say?” He looked at the Asian man and smiled and said he had to excuse me because I did not speak enough English, so I did not understand what junk meant.
“Oh?” I said, “I completely understand what you are saying. I speak English enough to know what junk means. And referring to my product as junk is completely unprofessional on your part.”
The Latin Guy — head of Latin America’s planning department — was fired a couple of years later after several people in his team, both men and women complained about harassment.
Women don’t cry (at work)
Months later, after preparing for yet another product launch, my Group Manager yelled at me for making the decision about who would be testing the product first. His exact words were, “Who the fuck do you think you are to make that decision?”
“I am the product manager,” I said. “And please come back to talk to me when you are not yelling and insulting me.” I thought I had developed a thick skin. But I cried instead. I cried at work. That big no-no!
I walked to our director’s office to inform him in a cracked voice, with tears in my eyes that I was going home for the day after speaking with HR about what had happened.
This man had a history of mistreating women. He also had a history of mistreating men. Even though he was a manager, he was not allowed to manage anyone because of many employee complaints. No human being could report to him directly. That was their way of dealing with abuse.
I did not quit that time. Having health insurance for my family and being able to pay for childcare ($1500 per month) was what drove me to work every day. That, and the fact that I had to prove I could have a career and be a mom. Make my parents proud. Those were my priorities.
I worked in these hostile environments for 16 years —from my mid-twenties to my early forties. What finally got me out of it, unfortunately, was a mental health crisis. I was under so much stress, in an environment with so little compassion, that I experienced a panic attack that simulated a heart attack. The hardest part was that I was not home. I was in Mexico City when this happened, right after a business event. I never felt so scared in my life. I thought I was dying away from home. Leaving my husband and three-year-old daughter behind.
There was no way I was going to tell the people I worked with what had happened. I did not want to lose my job. I felt that if I went anywhere else and worked for a different company or a different brand, I would just be changing the facade of the same building. The technology industry is the same everywhere. It’s a male-driven world.
I was scared. I was told if the episodes repeated again I had to see a psychiatrist. I was really scared. I ended up in the ER a couple times again back home. My world was falling apart, and I did not know what to do. I was afraid of driving in LA traffic and having a panic attack behind the wheel in the middle of rush hour on the 405.
I was afraid of flying anywhere and being alone in hotels so far from home: Las Vegas, New York, New Jersey, etc. I had to travel a lot for work. Especially during trade show season. I saw a psychiatrist and got medication to help me with anxiety and depression. I did yoga and meditation. I ate healthily.
I finally got the courage to leave that world.
I learned later that my last company had to split my job among four people. I had heard many times from my direct manager that there was no budget to hire an assistant to help with my workload and that my product line was not profitable enough to justify another headcount. These are the business reasons that go above the humanity of what we do every day.
At the end of the day, I did get thick skin and was able to stand up for what I value most. But the scars are there, in my memory and in my heart. And I am constantly faced with the question, “How do I raise a strong daughter, because the fight is not over.”
Thank you Anita Hill, thank you, Oprah Winfrey, thank you Christine Blasey Ford and anyone who has made their voices heard and not forgotten.