31 October 2016

The time I felt silenced by a person in power. (And why it's taken me two years to speak up.)

Over the weekend, a story came out about Jennifer Hawkins not speaking up about Donald Trump's derogatory comments towards her on stage at an event. I have to be honest and admit I haven't been following the US Presidential Election closely, other than the odd headline revealing what a dangerous man Donald Trump is.     

My editor put a call out in our Facebook writer's group, asking if anyone wanted to cover the Jennifer Hawkins and Donald Trump story. A colleague pitched an angle, and it inspired me to share my own experience of being silenced because I was afraid of someone in power. I sent off my experience to my editor, and Jenna Price wrote this article for Daily Life with a few of my quotes.
Jenna Price article screen shot

I think it might be pretty common for women to experience harassment or uncomfortable comments from a manager or senior member in the organisation and not speak up because of the ramifications to their career. It's happened to me, a number of times. I wanted to share the whole story with you, so here it is.     

I put so much of myself into my writing, and so readers - and editors - come to know me very well. Perhaps they feel my candid writing about my disability gives them permission to enquire, or joke about it, more than a stranger.     

I was at a conference, hanging out with fellow writers. I always love seeing my writing friends in person - they just get the industry, and we talk so much online it's nice to see them in real life. It had been quite a successful time for me - winning several writing awards and being published across many networks.    

One editor, who, along with their team, gave me such a great opportunity, made a few comments about my skin.     

"I wanted to slap you on the bum but I didn't know if it would hurt you", they said as they greeted me while I checked into the hotel. I laughed it off, air kissing them back.  Did I hear right?

I dropped my bags in my room, and then headed down to the hotel bar. A number of us chatted over cocktails and snacks, talking a mile a minute. It was truly great to see everyone at this annual conference.     

An hour, one cocktail and lots of selfies later, I got up to leave, saying I wanted to have a shower and get some rest before that evening's event. "Don't leave your skin in the shower", my editor laughed.     
I waved everyone off, cheeks burning. When I got to my room, I told my friend who was sharing with me what was said. My roommate agreed it was strange, but we agreed it was just a joke, not meant with malice.    

It was such a personal, odd thing to say. My editor hadn't commented on anyone else's personal attributes as they had mine, not that my writer friends had any obvious disabilities that I knew of.

A few months earlier, I had written a long post on Facebook (later inserted into a blog) about how my fears of staying in shared accommodation while traveling were conquered when I was forced to shower in a hostel. Fellow travelers had to see me first thing in the morning - face unwashed, dry skin - and I came to be comfortable with that. Perhaps my editor had read it? Of course, I was - and still am - conscious of leaving my skin behind, so my editor's comment made be burn up in front of my colleagues and friends. What if I did gross out my roommate by leaving skin behind in the shower? (I later vowed not to apologise about my skin.)    

We glammed up for the evening. My friend and I were five minutes fashionably late - she looked so fabulous by the time she put on her makeup and curled her hair.  The lift to the bar was full - and my editor was in there. We squeezed in. My editor spoke up: "what took you so long ladies? Did Carly spend ages getting the skin on her face ready?", they asked.     

I was mortified, but quick. I said  "No, Liz* spent ages putting her makeup on. I don't need makeup."    
The lift was silent. I got no apology. This third time frustrated me.     

My writer friends drank and chatted the night away. Of course my editor's comments were not enough to make me worry about my appearance, but I did worry I was giving so much about myself in my writing that it made readers comfortable to say really awkward things.    

When we returned to our hotel room after the event, my roommate and I discussed what happened in the lift, at the bar and at reception. We couldn't quite believe it. (When I called her about mentioning her in this article, two years on, she still agreed it was weird.) I said those things have stuck with me for years and I didn't want to speak up. I worried about my career.     

While perhaps my editor was so familiar with my work, and sees me comfortably making jokes about my skin, they felt it gave them  permission to make a joke too.     

But here's the thing. They were in power of me - at the time I had a writing contract with that publication. It was good money and I didn't want to jeopardise the contract or my reputation with my editor and their team.     

But as an employee and contractor with a disability, insensitive or discriminatory comments about my disability from my superiors can be difficult to manage. Who do I tell when the person making them is the boss? What if, by being assertive and saying these comments make me feel uncomfortable, I am breaking a code of conduct.     

Perhaps this is why Jennifer Hawkins didn't speak up about Donald Trump's belittling comments. He publicly made comments about lying about her intelligence, and suggested Jennifer "came and came and came". She avoided his kiss on the lips by turning her head.    

On the weekend. Jennifer Hawkins said "I've said it before, he has treated me with respect, and so has his family. Beyond that, what else am I going to comment on," she said. She said she didn't want to get involved in making a political comment."    

He has given her many opportunities as Miss Universe. At one stage he was her boss. My editor gave me many opportunities too. But it's comments made from people in power who stop us speaking up. And it shouldn't.     

These sorts of comments because of familiarity would never happen in my regular day job as I don't "put myself out there" as much as in my writing. But how does that excuse the comments from my editor? It was really easy to blame myself because as online writers, we are constantly on the receiving end of justifications for negative and abusive comments. And perhaps Jennifer Hawkins (and the public) felt like she should have just laughed Donald Trump off because she's in an industry that focuses on physical beauty. It still doesn't make it right, though.     

I've never spoken to anyone other than my hotel roommate about how I felt when my editor made comments about my skin. I excused them because I felt I invited them by making readers comfortable enough to feel they can have a joke with me. Just like readers ask how sore I am, because I wrote about it. But I never asked for it. My editor held the payment and writing opportunities over me - but they also made me feel more self conscious than I needed to. All for a byline.     

Writing this piece felt cathartic. I might be risking my reputation in the media industry by speaking out (just as I've been told that I might be overreacting or too sensitive when I've spoken up about bullying in my day job), but I don't want my silence to be complicit anymore.   

(*Name has been changed.) Did you like this post? Did it help you or make you think? Please consider buying me a drink!


  1. I can relate. A lot of stuff that has been said to me, along with invasive personal questions about my disability, have been from people in power (bosses, professors, etc.)

  2. THIS! Is exactly why we can't afford to have any sections of the Discrimination (racial or otherwise) Act/laws changed to remove the insult and offend sections. Can you imagine the free for all that would ensue?

    It's pretty ordinary you experienced that in a media role - your boss was clearly being a bully. They would have known exactly what they were doing and it seems like they were making a point of making sure you knew it too (by keeping it up).

    I have experienced (if I'm honest I still do) similarly inappropriate behaviour in my predominantly male workplace and in other circles. My large boobs, infertility, husband leaving me, dating experiences and sex-life have all been seen as topical free-for-all for the men I work with. If I react to anything it's because I'm being a bitch, it'd just be considered one more thing I'm being bitchy about. It's really tough being a woman working in a male dominated workplace. At times I feel so dis-empowered to do or say anything, especially if I've awkwardly laughed it off or had a few too many drinks so engage in the banter making it seem that it's ok. Now I feel like I just have to put up with it because I've let it slide for so long. I think I feel like it's always my fault because over the years t's just escalated because I've never handled it properly.

    I'm actually a pretty open and honest person, I share a lot with my former boss and his wife were my friends before he became my boss. I guess I should have made the boundaries clearer at least there.

    The first time I remember an adult male (a neighbour) talk about the size of my boobs I was about 12. We had 2 neighbours both who had daughters who thought it was ok to talk about girls' and women's bodies and appearances. I remember feeling mortified and disgusted and then mortified again that it continued on and on throughout my adolescence. The worst thing was that whenever I complained about it to my parents (Who heard it and never did anything about it) they made excuses because the two trolls dressed as men were drunks. I guess when I think about it, it's just one more behaviour I've learnt to tolerate from a young age.


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