I was 22 years old working at my first graphic design job in Manhattan. The office staff was called into a conference in the morning, I can’t recall the purpose of the meeting but breakfast foods were spread out on the table and my coworkers and I sat eating and talking when the head honcho came in. A tall, towering man named Mr. Noren – he was the owner of the healthcare company that employed all of us. Amidst our chewing Mr. Noren entered took a seat and before addressing us formally his gaze landed on Adele, our demure receptionist who did an excellent job and always presented herself professionally. She was a few years older than I was and single. As I swallowed a bite of my blueberry muffin I noticed that Adele was half-way through eating a banana as Mr. Noren said loudly, “Hey Adele, you handle that banana like an old married woman.”
Yes, that’s what he said. Although no one exactly laughed out loud, there were some sincere snickers and some fake ones intended placate the boss – I assume some of the giggles grew from discomfort with such blatant disrespect. But not a person stood up for her and the meeting proceeded unhindered as we turned our attention to business. I was horrified and on every level realized that the workplace is a man’s domain. It was proven to me at every turn, but never as solidly as it was that morning. I made a note to self: stay under the radar and avoid any attacks like that. I desired to be unnoticed, not the best approach, but being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse my decision was made at an unconscious level.
This was the late eighties, at a time when sexual harassment laws were loosely written and often ignored. At a time when women still had to grin and bear it. At that job I worked alongside a women, Paula, in her sixties who told tales of even more egregious sexism against woman in the workplace that occurred when she was just starting out. Classified employment ads would specify in writing that a woman needed to be “attractive” and single to land the proposed position and Paula also recalled being patted on the behind by more than one of her bosses – for a job well done. There was nothing she could do about it at the time. Paula did, however, become a human resources consultant who, when I met her, ran her own business and contracted out work. Paula felt the best revenge was working and living well. I saw her point of view. My friend, a single mother, moved through her life was grace and purpose, earning a good living to support herself and her daughter.
I can’t say that I ever felt quite as calm about the situation as Paula. I was the recipient of many unwanted sexual advances from the art director at the very same company and I felt helpless and angry. Throughout my career’s many twists and turns I would often think of Adele and her humiliation – and in all these years – and even with being a professional writer – this is the first time I’ve written about Adele and that particular breakfast. That was only one morning, one moment, I can’t imagine how being Mr. Noren’s secretary was like day-to-day. What did Adele endure? How did affect the rest of her life?
As I move toward the practicum of my counseling education I am moved to counsel women and work toward social justice for my gender. Although sexual harassment laws are firmly in place in many states, there is still sexism in the workplace – a place in which women still earn 75 cents to every dollar a man earns. I am not one to whine – and that’s not what I am doing here, but to say that our society isn’t still patriarchal is to say that racism is dead. It’s to say there is economic justice in our country and that just isn’t true. I feel that counseling gives me a firm foundation to work toward social justice and to apply my craft to empower women – and men and children also benefit from this.
In my most previous life I’ve worked as a life coach helping women and men start businesses and create a healthy balance between their personals lives and work. I’ve also, as a journalist, written extensively about women’s rights and the development of egalitarian modern families. As I start my practicum at the Women’s Center of Greater Danbury as a certified, volunteer domestic violence and sexual assault counselor and advocate my work will be even more essential. I finally arrived at a place I can work with women directly – not as a writer, but as an advocate and I am thrilled. I might seem idealistic, but I assure I am not. I’m simply interested in putting my skills into action in a field I believe in.
I love being a journalist and a life coach, but for me being a counselor offers so much more. Counseling affords all of us a personal connection with others. For me it offers me a chance to work with women and girls who are underserved and disenfranchised. As counselors-in-training and as professionals let’s ask ourselves questions as we move through our training and work: What do you feel passionately about? How do you wish to affect people around you? What situations make you change and grow and feel challenged? And let’s all keep in mind that seeking meaningful work is meaningful in itself.
Susan Jennifer Polese is a counselor in training, a personal coach and a freelance writer. Her areas of interest are mindfulness, divergent thinking, and creativity in counseling. www.evolutionlifecoachingstudio.com