Amy was in a senior position at a small law firm when one of the partners invited her out to lunch to “discuss her future prospects”.
She was already financial controller and didn’t really see what prospects there were to discuss. But when she arrived at the meeting, at an upscale restaurant in George Town, it quickly became clear that work was not on the agenda.
“He came straight out and said he wanted to have a relationship with me,” she remembers.
The man was married and Amy (not her real name) was in a serious relationship. She told him clearly and unequivocally that she was not interested.
“It was a really awkward moment,” she said.
“Sitting at the table, right there and then, I realised my job there was done.”
The conversation had flowed freely to that point but afterwards, she recalls, it was stilted.
Towards the end of the meeting, she says, the partner made some comment that he didn’t see much opportunity for advancement or expansion in her current role.
Soon after, she found she was being left out of email chains and frozen out of meetings she had previously been asked to attend.
She had been with the firm for four years but three months after that lunch, she quit.
“I was so angry,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m not putting up with this’ and I left.”
Making a move in an industry where there were few available positions on an equivalent level was risky for her career but she made the leap and found work as regional financial controller in a large firm.
She didn’t escape the culture of sexism and harassment that she believes is common within the profession, however.
In her new role, she answered to a global director who was based overseas. He visited Cayman occasionally and had a reputation for being over familiar with the female employees.
For the most part, she says, it was leering looks and hands left on the shoulder a little too long. She put up with it as part of the territory.
Things escalated, however, when she visited the island where he was based, for a business trip.
“He invited me to a dinner party at his house. I assumed it was a work thing but when I got there, there were no other people from the company – it was him and his wife and their friends.”
The man had driven her to the event straight from the office and at the end of the night, she had no means of getting home. He suggested she stay in the spare room.
She had only been in bed for a few minutes when she saw the door handle start to move.
“I had locked the door and left the key on the inside. I heard him fumbling with it for a while and I could see the key moving in the lock.”
The man didn’t say anything and eventually he went away. When she woke the next morning, he had already left and his wife had to drive her home.
No one to report to
Amy didn’t report either incident. In the first case, she said, the partners were also responsible for HR. There was no one to complain to.
On the second occasion, she knew the man had ‘a reputation’ within the firm.
“It was well known what he was like and nobody had done anything. I just carried on as if nothing had happened.”
In a long career, she says, those are the incidents that stand out. But sexism, harassment and inappropriate behaviour are almost routine in the legal profession, in her experience.
“You are dealing with a lot of egos and in some firms the partners are treated like celebrities,” she said. It doesn’t help, she acknowledges, that some women use that to their advantage, pursuing relationships that help their career. The mix of social and work life with networking events and weekly happy hours, where attendance is expected, also feed into an environment where the line between office romance and sexual harassment gets blurred.
Success in the profession, she says, is too often dictated by how you interact with the senior partners.
In some firms, she warns, that translates to how much inappropriate behaviour you are prepared to tolerate or go along with.
“I am a strong person and I was never going to submit to anything like that,” she says, “I do worry, though, for young women coming into the industry.”
Throughout June, the Cayman Compass Issues section is shining a light on the problem of sexual harassment in Cayman. We are providing a forum for women and men impacted by the issue to tell their stories, and examining possible solutions to make the islands a safer place to live and work. Join the conversation at www.caymancompass.com/issues/ or email Issues Editor James Whittaker on [email protected]