Does Chicago Need Women Only Work Spaces?

My first “real” job out of college was as an administrative assistant at a small creative firm in Chicago. Within my first month on the job at the company, which employed about five men and me, my boss sent me an email asking me to help him retrieve a message that had been sent to him at his SugarDaddy(dot)com account. Apparently, he couldn’t figure out how to read it.

I googled SugarDaddy(dot)com, a website I had never had reason to visit previously. I’ll save you the trouble of googling it yourself. It is exactly what you think it is. I considered how to respond to my boss, who was married at the time. “If you go to SugarDaddy(dot)com and enter your username and password, you should be able to access it.”

That exchange right there is a microcosm of what the next eight years would be for me at that company. I should have stood up at my desk at that very moment, walked out the door and never looked back. But I was 23. It was my first salaried job, and I wanted to prove that I could do it.

What ensued was eight long years of enduring a hostile work environment in which I busted my ass to gain the approval of a sadistic misogynist. I endured the insensitive comments of my coworkers, all male industrial designers, machinists and electronics engineers, on top of the blatant abuse I suffered at the hands of my boss. I fetched coffee. I was interrupted in meetings, I was patronized, I was told I should “wear high heels more often,” I was referred to as “arm candy,” and, I would later come to find, I was paid less than almost everyone else working there for the privilege of such treatment.

My boss was diagnosed with a serious illness about five years into my tenure at the company, and he was subsequently out of commission for the greater part of a year. During that time, and for the years that followed, I ran that business, never missing a beat, maintaining our high-profile client relationships, traveling nationwide, making sales. At this point, my role had been upgraded to business manager, though my pay was still paltry. But I stepped up and kept that business running. When my boss returned, there was no acknowledgment of what I had done for him and his company. There were more requests to fetch coffee.

By the time I reached 30, I knew that I deserved better. Was it normal to feel shitty at work EVERY DAY? Was it normal to dread waking up in the morning EVERY DAY? Truthfully, I had known for years that I was working in a toxic environment that was killing my sense of self-worth, but I had been too scared to leave the security of a regular paycheck, even if that check did not reflect my actual professional value. The recession had not helped fuel my confidence, either, and I feared I would never find another job.

In the fall of 2014, when I knew it was the end, I had to go on a business trip to LA – just me and my boss – which would turn out to be one of the worst few days of my life thus far, for more reasons than I need to recount here. Looking back, there were hundreds of tiny things that happened to me during the eight years I worked for this man -– moments, comments, glances, reprimands, slights – more than can be listed here, and honestly, there is not a working woman out there who does not know what I am referring to, who hasn’t lived this story in some small, or large, way herself. I do not need to outline every incident of sexual harassment and emotional abuse I endured, because you’ve all been there. But I will mention a few from this final trip because, to me, they seemed like appropriate bookends to my eight years of torture.

In between meetings, my boss wanted to do some sightseeing, so we went to Venice Beach. At one point, when crossing a busy four-lane boulevard, he grabbed my arm – the fleshy part of my tricep – to lead me across the street, as though I was a small child. Feeling his hand on my skin (we were in California, and it was hot out) sent chills through me and made my stomach drop, but anger quickly bubbled up there. Do I seem like a person who is incapable of crossing the street without assistance of a man to make sure I don’t get killed? Would he EVER do something like that to any of my male coworkers? I couldn’t imagine him even touching any of them, let alone touching them in such a dominant and patronizing way.

Across the street, we found the beach and a waterside restaurant where we had lunch. Afterward, the waitress brought him the check, which he signed. Then, he took out a $20 bill, put it down on the table and stood up to leave. I glanced down at the check, which he had left open on the table, and saw that he had left a tip on the credit card. I wondered why the extra $20 was laying on the table, when I saw that he had written a note to our server, an attractive, young blonde woman who had happened to be wearing rather short shorts. “It has been a true pleasure to watch you walk around in those shorts. This extra $ is for you.” I was sickened. I felt bad for our server, who had just been cheapened and objectified to a point that $20 would do little to mitigate. I thought of my boss’s fiancée back in Chicago (he had divorced his previous wife a few years back). I was angry for so, so many reasons. A lifetime of reasons.

This despicable man would, a few short months later, go on a week-long binge and end up sending explicit sexual messages, many of them cruel, to multiple people through the company’s Facebook page, which I managed on a daily basis. I saw them all. I was not surprised. I put my resignation in a month later. It was still one of the hardest things I have ever done.

Three years have passed, and I still live with the aftereffects of eight years of consistent abuse. I do different work now, and I work with people who respect me and have earned my respect, in return. I know my story is not unique, and I know it’s not even as horrible as many others’. That makes me terribly sad. Women all over the world have to contend with moments big and small that make them feel like they are less than, that their voices don’t matter, that they are not worth it.

It is for this reason that I am so passionate about women-focused work spaces. It is for this reason that I am so excited about the city of Chicago finally having one, the Ladies Room. At this point in my life, when I walk into my workplace, I want to greet faces of people who see me as an equal, as a person of value who has something to contribute.

As much as I feel bad saying, “No Boys Allowed!” (won’t they be angry? Is that even legal?) I know that for me to be at my best at work, I need the support of other women. In order to be comfortable, to speak up, to enjoy myself, and to feel safe, I need to be buoyed by the presence of women. A lifetime of living in a society in which a man can be elected president after bragging about sexually assaulting women has made me doubt myself at every turn. It helps to be with people who do not doubt me just because of my gender.

It was scary to write this, and it’s scary to try something new. Ladies Room Chicago is for me, but it is for all of you, too, who have endured abuse, sexism, and toxic masculinity in the workplace. I am optimistic that we are witnessing the beginning of a tidal shift toward eliminating toxic workplaces for women – and not just in entertainment, but across all industries. Until those tides turn for good, women everywhere deserve a safe haven.