It was about midnight, maybe 1am when it started. I was already asleep.
“Yeah, Sara she’s up for it. She’s been cracking on to me all day and I know she wants it. I’ll have her before any of you do.” The man’s voice loud and clear just the other side of the plywood bedroom door.
“Yeah,” the voice bragged on, “she left early, I saw her with that insurance company bloke swapping phone numbers, then I think she went home with him. She’s obviously up for it.”
It was acutely obvious to me as I lay frozen to the nylon sheets, listening to my good name being slandered by The Muppet Show, that I was the only woman in the cosy little ski lodge. Just me and around thirty men, most of whom were drunk on schnapps, and high on liberty from any commitments they may have signed up to sometime in life.
Not only was I the only woman there, I was set to stand up in front of this motley band of numbnuts first thing tomorrow to present my firm’s latest money management results, and persuade them they should give us more client money in order that I may keep my job and earn some sort of creditable bonus. Oh hooray!
Back then, I worked in business development for a prestigious global fund management house. My job was to win business and keep it. We had sponsored a financial adviser conference taking place in an Aussie ski resort, and in return for the sponsorship we had been granted the honour of the opening speaker slot, which I was to fill.
This was back in the late nineties, after the shit fight of the eighties when governments in their infinite wisdom decided there ought to be some rules in place about financial institutions and client money, but before it went all nanny state and silly on us all.
Overseas shindigs and big spending conferences were rampant in those times, some very familiar household names would spend the equivalent of a third world national debt on entertaining financial advisers, in order to persuade them to persuade you, the sweet public, to give them money to give to us to invest. (I’ll pause while you catch up).
They were five star bun fights with premium food, french champagne and
sometimes, often, a few fair lady escorts to keep the lonely chaps company whilst away from their wives. This particular conference was unusually, a more modest bun fight.
The voice broke through my door into my dreams again,
“…yeah,” it droned on dumbly, clearly its vacuous head had downed another two schnapps by now, “I bet you $50 I’ll be the first to have her.”
More voices followed, saying something I couldn’t quite catch, but I could hear the stakes getting higher. I couldn’t quite decide whether I was feeling scared, threatened, angry or quite what I was feeling, but I did know that I had to get control of this situation before it got out of hand and just a little bit too silly.
And anyhow, I didn’t want to find out my virtue was worth only about $50. Oh the shame.
Option one: Shall I ignore it, I mused, no, early morning embarrassment and humiliation would ensue since all except me would apparently know what went on last night. To boot, if this gets out of hand, I could be in actual danger. Although given the level of inebriation, it would have been unlikely any of them were capable of much more than passing out in front of the limp, waning log fire.
Option two: burst out of my room like a screaming harridan and take them all to task with my best angry woman persona. Hmmm, violence against violence, not the smartest strategy.
It was perhaps when the bidding reached $500 for the claim of being first to my bed, I decided enough was enough.
Option three was the go. I dressed, and opened the door.
The air stood still, the men froze in their seats, watched as I swished past the long communal table strewn with shot glasses and stale beer, towards the lodge kitchen.
“Good evening gentlemen,” I smiled, “I’m just getting a water glass.” All heads swivelled to watch, I turned, looked straight at the biggest wally of all, (let’s call him Simon), who had about as much chance of sharing my bed as skiing the Olympics, then slowly around to the collective to take in all their gloriously dumbstruck expressions.
“I trust you’re all enjoying your night? I want you to be assured that whoever is on the other end of the $500 bet, you can collect because I wont be going near him with a long pole.” and gestured to ‘Simon.’
There was absolute silence. It was delicious. I HAD WON!
A voice broke the silence. It was the company CEO.
“What are you talking about Sara?’
Gaslighting is a sophisticated manipulation tactic used by some personality types to create doubt and anxiety in the minds of others. Years later I realise it was exactly what went on in that moment and have since learned to recognise it when others use it, it’s subtle and effective when used on the vulnerable.
I turned towards him slowly, “You know exactly what I’m talking about. Goodnight.”
And off I went to bed for a sleepless night with the chair pushed up against the door.
The next morning, I’d describe the atmosphere as contrite. I stood up at the front of that room and rolled out my presentation like the professional I aspired to be.
‘Simon,’ king of the Muppets, had clearly sobered up by midmorning because he spent most of the day sidling up to me with a puppy dog look on his face. I was having none of it, nor of anyone else. I was the Ice Maiden. Cold hard bitch from hell. Truth was, I didn’t know what to do or say and the gaslighting moment had banged my confidence into next week. I got the hell out of dodge as soon as I could, got a taxi to Cooma and flew home.
It was a few days until I finally got my shit together and decided what to do. Reluctantly I told my boss about it. Father of two children, he was horrified but respectful and asked if I was ok with him raising it with the client. With further reluctance I agreed, mostly because I wanted to make a firm stand for other women and for the young rookie women coming through the firm. And yes, I wanted ‘Simon’ to be accountable for his behaviour.
Yet paradoxically, I also found myself not wanting to make a fuss, not make a big deal of it. I was frightened I would be seen as high maintenance, unable to do my job as a woman. Worried we might lose the client’s business and how it might reflect on me.
What I didn’t do was question was whether I even wanted to do my job any more if this was what was involved.
Ultimately, there were very few consequences to be had for the client. There were never any apologies from any of the senior executives, but a day or two later I was in my home office and my phone rang throughout the day with a blocked number. Around 6pm I picked up and it was ‘Simon.’ He apologised. I listened carefully, held my tongue and waited until he’d finished. Then I let rip.
The message I delivered, and which I hope has stayed with him was that he crossed a line. Had there been any degree of issue with my professionalism, content, or anything work related, bring it on let’s hear it, but this was personal, humiliating (more so for him than me, really) and total bullshit. We ended the conversation with my saying “if I ever hear of you being involved with this sort of behaviour with any other woman in our industry, I will be watching and I will be onto you.” Wow, I’m sure he was shaking in his poopy pants. Not.
I did hear he left his firm shortly afterwards, perhaps he was fired, I don’t know and probably never will.
Since that time, at conferences I and my female peers have had people break into our hotel rooms and go through our underwear drawers, knock on our doors in the middle of the night asking for sex, proposition us at the bar, in the restaurant, even on the bus from the airport. It was often easier and more comfortable to travel and share a room with a trusted male colleague than to be alone, so sometimes we would. Which of course would start a whole lot of new rumours about our virtue.
Had I the opportunity to use this time and experience again, I’m not sure I would have acted any differently except I would have held the client CEO more to account. I would have asked for more support from the good men in the industry who did not, and would not ever behave like rabid pack dogs cocking their legs on any woman in sight.
There are plenty of good men who would have been horrified at what had gone on.
Men if you’re reading this, I’ll say this again, there are many of you who would have stepped in and intervened had you seen what was going on that night. Of that I have no doubt.
I ask this of you good men, please look out for rabid pack dog bullshit and call it. It could be your wife, your daughter, or sister next time.
That’s all, feel free to share your thoughts…..