Complainer. Troublemaker. Difficult. Overly sensitive. Bitch. It’s hard for a lot of women to speak up against workplace discrimination because we fear we’ll be called these ugly names, marginalized, or passed over for future opportunities. We worry we’ll lose our jobs, or worse. We second-guess our gut reactions and wonder, is it just me? Did I miss out on that opportunity because of my gender — or because I didn’t work hard enough? We overanalyze every negative comment and find a way to rationalize the bad behavior. Maybe we even think we deserve it.
Workplace discrimination is something that many people will face over the course of their careers, but it's rarely openly discussed. Sure, there are HR-run sessions to discourage biases and protect employers. And many of us will share our horror stories with friends and loved ones. But it is incredibly risky to speak publicly on the topic — and even harder to pursue legal action. Ellen Pao was publicly eviscerated, her private life splayed all over the media, during the trial for her gender discrimination suit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. And despite the stories of how she was passed over for promotions and excluded from office events, Pao lost the case and had to pay her former employer’s lawyer fees. It’s not exactly a story to inspire other women to take their own legal action.
Yet these stories aren't uncommon. Discrimination against women happens in all industries and at all levels. And its effects can be devastating. It destroys self-esteem and leaves women to make difficult decisions: Stay and put up with the abuse, or speak up and risk losing your livelihood.
Emily* was a year into her job when she was in a terrible cab accident. Her injuries were so serious, she was required to have two shoulder surgeries and a number of spinal injections. Before the accident, she had a fairly good working relationship with her boss — but it quickly changed for the worse. “He immediately started acting completely different,” she says. “He was very cold and impatient that I had to be out for so many doctor’s appointments. He antagonized me and questioned every decision I made. He wouldn’t approve my projects and would go months at a time without speaking to me, even though we worked three feet from each other.”
Emily took only a week off following each surgery — although her doctor recommended she take six weeks — because HR and her manager wouldn’t approve more leave. She's allergic to pain medicine and couldn’t even take Advil. And yet she showed up every day, on time, and worked through the pain, with one arm in a cast. She was sick with anxiety — terrified about losing her job. The medical expenses drained her bank account. She didn’t feel like she could go to job interviews wearing a cast.
“I was under his thumb for two and a half years,” she says, her eyes welling with tears. Then, after a long conversation with a former coworker, Emily finally realized she had to get out. It was like a dam breaking, she says, to have someone confirm that she wasn’t crazy, that her boss was abusive, and that she needed to leave.
“I didn’t realize how bad it was," Emily says, "because I had so many things that were so bad going on — all of the pain, and the surgeries, and the medical treatments — that I didn’t have the bandwidth to see things for what they really were.”
Six months ago, when she did finally decide to quit, Emily filed a claim with the New York Labor Department requesting unemployment benefits. Typically, you have to be let go from a job in order to collect, but Emily had been treated so poorly that she was granted the benefits. When the investigator asked why she didn’t want to pursue legal action, Emily expressed concern about her former colleagues: “The only people who could be my witnesses currently work there, and I don’t want to put them through that," she explains. "You know? That’s not what I wanted to do to my colleagues who cared for me and who I cared for so deeply.”
There was also a fear that maybe she didn’t have a strong enough case. “How can you prove someone’s silence or rejection if there’s nothing said or done?" she asks. "He was very savvy," she says of her former boss. "He used his power for evil.”
Emily has since found a new job that she loves. She feels supported and appreciated and is working on projects she believes in. Slowly, her self-esteem is coming back. She was reluctant to be interviewed for this story and declined to be part of our photo shoot because the industry she works in is small, and she still fears retaliation. But she's found some relief in sharing her story and speaking up for herself. She wants other women to know that they, too, can survive and thrive after these terrible situations. “This shit is rough," she says, "but it’s not forever. And in the end, I’m proud of myself and I’m proud of the outcome.”
Emily’s story is heartbreaking, but at the core, there’s hope. So many women fight these workplace battles every single day, and while some stories make front-page news, most are kept private. We want to encourage women to point out discrimination. We aren’t complainers or bitches because we speak our minds; we are competent employees who deserve to be treated fairly.
Ahead, seven women tell their stories. We hope they will inspire you to share your own and support each other in these daily struggles.
*Name has been changed.