I want to tell my story of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Not a lot of people know about it, or how it has affected me. Today, the news is full of Donald Trump and his terrible views about women, immigrants, and people of color. I feel physical, mental, and emotional pain when I hear what he and his people have to say. He is a vile, heartless, ignorant person. I feel so scared for my country and my future when I see him on the Internet and television, but sharing my story makes me feel more empowered, less alone. So many other people have similar and certainly worse stories, I am not alone. And I refuse to be just a victim. I want to make a difference somehow. My belief is that no one should have to feel like they need to change something about their appearance, or be afraid to be themselves or express themselves, to feel safe in the workplace and make sexual harassment and sexual discrimination stop. The people who are committing these wrongs, they are the ones who need to be stopped. This goes out to everyone who had opportunities taken away from them based on sex, gender, and/or race, who lost confidence in themselves because of it, and who constantly have to rebuild their sense of self-worth.
My mother always said that when it comes to the workplace, I should never complain. This advice comes from a strong woman who, by herself, emigrated from the Philippines in the late 80’s with a baby in hand (my sister) and one on the way (me) to rejoin with my dad, who left for America a year earlier to establish a life for his family. After a few minimum wage and low-paying jobs, my mom began her decades-long career as a paralegal. Together with my dad, she provided her family with food, clothes, and shelter. It was because of her job stability and my parents’ sacrifices that my family was able to survive and thrive. Growing up, I always wondered why she was so high-strung, anxious, nervous, and sad. Now, I realize, my mom had to make a lot of sacrifices as an individual and as a woman, to keep her full-time job and her family together. She sacrificed a lot of herself to make it so her three daughters and son could have stability and hope for the future.
In 2012, I landed my first lawyer job as a prosecutor for the Municipality of Anchorage, Criminal Division. I got this position through the Work/Study in Alaska program offered by my law school. Other students who went through this program said it would be a great start if I wanted to practice criminal defense because the position offered a ton of courtroom experience and maybe I’d even get to do a trial. I was excited at the opportunity to gain real world practical skills and see how the ‘other side’ thinks. In a way, I guess I did.
My supervising attorney was Herb Viergutz, a stringy old man with bad teeth and hair, who looks just like his name sounds – sad and ugly. He sexually harassed me constantly. It began on my first day, when he assigned a male student a work task, and assigned me the task of stirring his food in the microwave. I said no, but didn’t report it. He began propositioning me to ride on his motorcycle with him to his private office where we could get some other work done. He told me previous female student lawyers in my position did that before so I should, too. I always refused and said no. But still, I didn’t report it. In my head, I heard my mom’s advice, never complain, and I thought, this is just one summer, I can get through this.
I lost weight from stress and began wearing my plainest clothes and wearing no make up. I don’t wear the flashiest clothes and wear very little make up to begin with, but I still tried to look as unattractive as possible in hopes that he would stop. One day, he told me that after work, I should go to a motel with him on Spenard Street (known for prostitution). Let me remind you, this was coming from my supervising attorney, who was supposed to teach me how to practice law, and who was using his position to coerce me to sleep with him. This was in the same week that his friend, another creepy old guy at the office, put his hands on my shoulders when offering help I didn’t ask for. My desk was stuck in a corner in between the offices of these two men. In the same week, Herb was overheard by his boss saying something wildly inappropriate and investigations begun. A male student who heard him talk to me inappropriately denied he heard anything when asked. “I want to keep my job, you understand, right?” I couldn’t stand the toxicity anymore, I was so depressed.
Finally I said something to the program supervisor about this. As a result and for safety reasons, I was transferred to a new job site. The new position did not offer the same courtroom experiences, let alone the chance to conduct a trial. I was a wreck that summer. I felt like my career was off to such a bad start. I felt guilty for not speaking up sooner out of fear of losing a job I wanted so badly – but which, I guess, was never mine to begin with. I wished I had been more direct from the very start. I should have said, “that is inappropriate and you know it, you could get fired, I will report you.” In the end, he did get fired. Maybe I could have had the work experience I wanted, if I had just spoken up sooner. I felt bad, but also justified in wondering why the other female student prosecutor wasn’t subjected to this that summer? Because she was white? Because she was tougher? Because her desk was in a better location? Why did they put me so far away from her? I don’t know. I just felt stupid and guilty and weak and that it was my fault, but also that I was treated unfairly and failed by a system that was supposed to support me in the early stages of my career.
In 2014, while on a year-long break from studying for the bar exam, my friend helped me get a job at a place called Pacific Office Automation, signing deals and selling leases on fancy copy machines to businesses in Redmond and Kirkland. Though the pay was decent, the company was terrible. We were expected to work 7a-7p Monday – Friday, 60 hour weeks. Often more, because the company was all about quantity over quality, and the more hours you stayed there, even if you were just drinking beer and bullshitting with others at your desk, the more you were a “good, hard worker.” Everyone scoffed at the idea of work-life balance. Unless you were a father raising a family, then of course, family first. The office was primarily men, though my boss was a woman – the most successful woman and top salesperson company-wide. I thought I could learn from her.
Fast forward to a company party where she got really drunk. She grabbed me by the arm and introduced me to all these men, saying “isn’t she pretty?!” and then and kissed me on the mouth in front of them. That same night, one of the managers, John Holloway, approached me. He told me that he already had a Filipina girlfriend, but he could use another on the side, and wondered if I could help him with that. I said no, called out to another coworker nearby, and walked away.
This was just a month or so after another incident. While on a company trip to learn about new software, we were required to attend this company party. I was walking back from the bathroom and was called over to the table where the president was seated. I was wary because it was a table of all men, but I thought it could be a good opportunity to connect with the president. A male employee, Sonny, asked a younger male employee at the table, “who would you have sex with if you were in an elevator with her and her hot friend” and then put his hand on my lower thigh. Everyone laughed. The president of the company was seated right next to this man and later denied ever hearing this all go down. I told Sonny to take his hand off my leg and forced his hand off of me. I tried and failed to say something mean and clever back, then I left the table in anger, embarrassment, and frustration. Again, a missed opportunity to say something direct. I was shocked. I was also disappointed in myself. I felt stupid for not saying something smarter. I felt even more stupid for thinking I could have a seat at the table where the president of the company also sat. I told my boss and she bought me breakfast the next day and told me, “next time, at these work parties, just dance with me and the girls.” I saw that dance pit – all these creepy dudes were forcing the women to dance together after plying them with alcohol. Gross.
When we were back at the office on Monday, I reported the incident to headquarters, and my boss told me, “I thought you and I had talked about this already.” I finally left the job when, after having worked for months on securing a meeting with leaders of a company who were finally open to contracting with me, my deal was taken over by a male boss and his lackey. This male boss told me to “leave talking to the president with the guys, while you do the clerical work.” Again, I wondered why this was happening to me, when there was another young female salesperson there, too. If she had been subjected to this kind of stuff at this office, I never knew. She was on a different team than I was. I wondered, and felt guilty but also justified for thinking, if I were white, would this be happening to me? What made her untouchable and respectable, what made me the one to step on? Even though I made the Top-10 list of best new salespeople, I was so happy to quit that job. This was an awful work environment. I would rather live off my meager savings and look for another job, than see what else was in store for me here. I was unemployed for months before I finally found a job with a company I love.
I don’t know if my mother ever faced similar experiences when she started out in her career. I remember when I was a kid, watching her get ready for work. She was young, beautiful, simple, classic, and stylish. In her late 50’s, she still is. I wonder if she had to put up with awful things for the sake of keeping her job and providing for her family. I realize that even under the above workplace conditions, I was still privileged. If I had a family to raise, it would be so much harder because the fear of losing a job and financial stability is that much more real when you have to think about feeding people other than yourself. Neither my mother nor my father like to talk too much about the hard stuff they had to endure to get to where there are now. They always say, move forward and think positive. As I get older, I start to have a better understanding of their sacrifices based on the memories I still have from when I was a kid and the experiences I am going through as an adult. Maybe one of these days I will be able to talk with them person-to-person and learn more about their experiences.
Right now, I want to be open with my experiences because, in this environment where people are defending their misogynistic and racist ideologies, I think it is important for me, a woman of color, to share my story. Today, I am a lawyer. I have worked hard and endured a lot to get to where I am today, and I know this is just the beginning. Shit’s happened to me, and I’m sure more shit will be coming my way in this male-dominated profession and world. I think about my parents’ sacrifices and how far our family has come. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my family, without my partner, and without his family. I couldn’t have done it without the close friends who have stood by me as I overcame obstacles to achieve my goal, and who are helping me along on my journey every day still. I owe it to myself and to them to not let things like this defeat me.
Women like me, we are strong. We persevere. If we are lucky, we are backed by a strong and diverse community of family, friends, and colleagues who support and mentor us. Because of the inspiration I get from others, I have gotten much better at standing up for myself and addressing issues like this directly. Sadly, it often takes going through this kind of experience and being afraid, in order to learn how to be brave and stand up for yourself.
It does take bravery and confidence to stand up to those in a higher position of power. We need to share our stories of overcoming this bullshit so that we can learn from and empower each other and collectively shut this kind of mindset and behavior down for good.