An Apology To Strong Women In Their 20s From A Strong Woman In Her 40s

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An Apology To Strong Women In Your 20s

I haven't been on a date with anyone but the man I married since 1994, so I thought I was unqualified to give advice to young women about navigating social scenes.

I'm 45 and I have two teenage boys. I've had big highs and lows in my relationships and career, but I'm self-assured. I love who I've become. And, until this past week, I was living with the idea that you, my nieces and young women in my life, were growing up in a culture that will honor you and treat you as intelligent and capable human beings.

I was wrong — and I'm sorry.

I saw my 20-something nieces and the young women I worked with, and I thought, "Wow, a generation has truly passed by me. These girls will not have to diminish themselves for a man to feel comfortable, not at a bar and not in their careers." 

I thought you could pave your own way without navigating old boys' club workplaces. I mean, you have meet-ups, badass Facebook groups, and formal support networks. You have Bumble.

But it's not really true.

I look at the career I navigated, the young men I'm raising, and the confidence I've gained knowing how much has changed since my 20s. I dressed like a boy at work in those early years trying to pretend that I wasn't too feminine or young and therefore was qualified for my job.

My first business travel events with men involved them trying to get me drunk at bars and my CEO walking side-by-side with me through trade shows. At first, I didn't understand why he wanted me to hold onto his arm and smile while we navigated these huge conference centers together. Did he think I would get lost?

I was back at my hotel room when I realized his reason to have me hold onto him was to be his arm candy — not a respected member of his team.

I'd tell myself it was a learning experience to be at these shows in the early tech boom when in the back of my mind, I knew I was 5'10" and blonde and looked good on his 50-ish-year-old arm.

Later, I'd think, "Shit, why did I wear heels?" I'd chastise myself for calling attention to my appearance. It was my fault for wearing a skirt.

On one of the business trips in my early career, a client site visit I wasn't exactly sure why I was invited to attend, a sales guy from the company I worked for got very drunk with a couple of customers he was entertaining and they decided to beat on my hotel room door at 2 a.m. to try to get me to let them in so they could "hang out." 

I didn't want to cause waves. I sat on the hotel bed stunned and terrified and tried to figure out a way to get out of the situation without embarrassing them: "Haha, you guys sound like you've had way too much fun. I'm off to sleep!"

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But one of the men was large and strong enough to beat the hotel room door down, and it was close to happening, so I finally called hotel security. The next day all of us drove the four hours back to the office in silence (with me in the backseat as what seemed like a punishment).

These are the memories of my early 20s. Dating wasn't high on my list of priorities. Reporting incidents to HR wasn't high on my list of priorities either because, girls, we didn't have HR in early 1990s start-up tech companies and I assumed I'd be ridiculed and further isolated as unable to "hang" with the male culture if I said anything anyway.

This was just a couple of years after Anita Hill testified, after all.

So, I waited to tell my boss for several months. When I did tell him, it was in a letter — only because I had found out that both of the past customers who had tried to break my hotel door down at 2 a.m. that scary night were now being offered jobs at the company I worked for at leadership-level positions.

In response to the chaos my letter created, one of the perpetrators wrote me a letter of apology in the event that he "caused me any discomfort," likely because he had come from a large New York bank and was more aware of the possibility of being sued than anyone else.

I nodded and smiled. They both accepted the jobs and I worked with them.

Until this week, I had shoved all of these memories behind me. I mean, we are talking about a generation ago, right? Young women have actual role models now. We're leaning in!

If you are a manager, you're required to complete an online course on sexual harassment at work and hostile work environments. I actually enjoyed taking those courses myself as a manager because I thought it meant we had made progress.

I don't dress like a boy anymore. And I don't stay in hotels with doors that can be kicked in easily. I know how to walk into a room with purpose wearing 4-inch heels. That puts me at around 6'2" and lets me tower over most any man. And I like it.

I make eye contact. I'm comfortable in my skin. I own my 45-year old body as fully female and fully mine. I've had a strong, supportive marriage for 18 years. I've grown two amazing human beings. I've lived and traveled and made mistakes and apologized.

I own my gifts. I work on my weaknesses. I'm a survivor.

And I'm done taking bullshit. So let's go. Let’s do this whole badass movement I keep hearing about. Women have rights now. We're not going backwards. We can't go backwards. Except we can. And I forgot. And my nieces, young women, I'm really, really, sorry I missed the signs.

My first hint was a couple of years ago when the woman-owned company I helped build — that itself built 100 women-owned franchises — put a male CEO at the helm.

I'll summarize by saying the integrity of company's product has been crushed since.

"Peace, out," I said. I've got things to do.

I am a strong woman with a killer network and I can move on confidently.

Except, my young, badass women, last week history repeated itself for me. The reality of how far women still have to go to prove own our strength slapped me in the face.

I learned this walking into a party on a Manhattan rooftop — on a high from networking with some really killer, inspiring women who were truly supporting each other in all of their unique business endeavors.

It was a private party. Men were there, too. Some were really cool — many a little flirtatious. It felt fun for a minute. It was a hot night. I was in a sexy sundress. I was sober. I went to the bar to get my girls water, leaned in for the bartender's ear, and that's when he put his hands inside my dress — on my skin. Uninvited. And it all rushed back.

This was a violation. But I was stunned. He was really tall — taller than me. He was drunk. I knew who he was but I didn't know him. He is in the middle of 15 minutes of fame — about halfway through is my best guess.

My girls, I didn't react this time either. See, it became 1993 all over again. I didn't want him to feel bad and I didn't want to call attention to myself. I was a deer in headlights, again.

All I could think was, "What did I do?" And, "Why did I wear that backless dress? Why am I at a rooftop bar at 1 a.m.? Why did I feel safe when I wasn't?"

My reaction was to back up quickly and make a joke of it. His reaction was to call me "angry" and ask, "What’s wrong with you?"

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Again, I smiled and worked to smooth it over. I even stayed and chatted for a few minutes. Because other people were there, watching. And I was ashamed.

It took a couple of minutes for me to seethe. This guy hadn't even seen angry. I mean I can do angry. I'm capable of angry. I'm capable of a lot. Girls, I wish I could write to you about what an appropriate, strong and angry response sounds like when you’ve felt outright sexual violation. But I didn't give an appropriate response, so I can't.

I worked so hard to feel comfortable enough in my skin to show it off a little — to embrace a sexy version of myself. I love that part of myself. I forget about it sometimes.

But, sweet nieces, young women: stunned and still is not the correct reaction when someone puts uninvited hands on your body, on your skin, no matter where you are or what you are wearing.

Shame is not an appropriate emotion in response to someone else's bad behavior. Strength comes from owning your response and learning from it.

So here I go...

I'm sorry, but you need to keep fighting girls. I'm afraid we 40-year olds plus women didn't work hard enough to make you protected. Many of us, like me, thought we got somewhere and could chill for a minute.

I don't know what it's like live your 20s on social media. I've never been on Tinder or Bumble — or for people to be able to see your resume on LinkedIn before they go out with you. But I do know this age-old story of being a woman who is prey for a hunter — an acquisition — something to be won in a fight or a game.

I've acted the part of the trophy. As far as I thought we have come in the one generation between us, women are still a game for men to play.

The game can look like the clearly married man who spoke with his face way too close to me the whole flight from San Francisco to New York the week before the party. as I squeezed myself closer and closer to the window until my arms and legs were contorted so that every signal I could give out was #notavailable.

All of the while he sprinkled in stories of his couple of tours in Iraq. Noble, I’m sure, but I didn't ask, and I'm not a pawn.

Or, there's the guy with a few dollars in his pocket, 10 minutes of fame and 40K Instagram followers to prop his ego up and make him think he can tower over me at the rooftop bar and put his hands inside my dress while I held 3 glasses of water for my new girlfriends sitting at a table laughing together and waiting for me.

No, we did not have hashtags when I was in my 20s, and the only other options for meeting a husband, besides the organic way, was maybe your hairdresser or aunt setting you up for a blind date. It seems way more complicated to me now. And I totally don't get that part of your experience.

What hasn't changed is the game. I'm suddenly afraid it's gotten worse. And I'm sorry I got too comfortable to notice.

At 45, I had truly felt a sense of safety and confidence moving in this world. I lived in San Francisco most of my adult life. I know the rules. I know how to operate around men and diverse environments. Now, I'm questioning it all again.

What I do know for sure, the lesson that I can teach you is the fight to be respected as a strong woman in this country and the rest of the world is not even close to over.

Is it a coincidence the current U.S. president has bragged that once you've achieved a certain level of power you can touch a woman however you want?

And by his actions, he has shown that if a woman does something you don't like, a great response is to verbally attack her appearance or allude to her period — or maybe call her "angry" just like me.

The truth is there are still so many men in power set on debunking what they see as a myth that a woman can be a whole, valid, equally valuable creature on God's earth and that we won't just roll over for their liking.

So my nieces, my girls, I promise to do better next time because I just remembered there will be another next time. I apologize for not acting like a role model on that rooftop last week.

Here is my new manifesto for myself and for women of all ages who choose to react instead of freezing when the time comes.

Your body, mind, and soul are valuable beyond measure.

No one may treat you with disrespect simply because you are female.

No one may touch you in any sexual manner without your permission.

No one may punish you for rejecting his sexual advances.

You may be proud of your femininity and wear that backless dress if you want.

You are a beautiful, lovable and priceless human being.

You cannot be purchased.

And no girls, we can’t relax. Not yet.

Sharon Demko is a Co-Active® leadership coach, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and professional trainer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Sharon works with clients one on one, or in teams in organizations, to build strong minds, bodies, and spirits. For more info, visit her website.

Watch Jennifer Brown's TED Talk on finding your voice in the workplace.