Dear Long-Ago Boss,
No need for names or details of place. This is not an outing letter but my stab at giving this negative episode from my past a positive use now. Here’s where my imagination takes me: I write this, you recognize yourself in the description, you tell others that you now understand how disrespectful you were, you apologize, and you demonstrate the important truth—that people can grow, and in this way, you become an agent of positive change. You help me show others that doing right is not complicated. Because it is not complicated. You explain the straightforward way of life: Treat others with respect. And bad bosses everywhere will correct their behaviors.
Why am I thinking of you today when my life is wonderful, and my children are beautiful and healthy? None of us appear adversely affected by stray radiation from that x-ray machine you had me run while sitting in the same room, and I only now and then miss being a scientist. It is because #MeToo raised old specters of your behaviors toward me, and my subsequent decision to leave my practice of science.
My gut says, This is too little, too late. It won’t make any difference to share. Please, Long-Ago Boss, make my gut wrong. Please, join me in figuring out how to be productive about the past, not rehashing, vengeful, or self-rebuking.
Before coming to these pleas, I got bogged down with other questions about the passage of time. Since a letter to you can’t change the past, and it’s unclear what to do about actions and language of more than thirty years ago, why exhume this ancient stuff? Does any of it matter anymore? Does one hold a person accountable for such old transgressions?
I haven’t figured out the answers, but, here we are, more than thirty years later, with persistent gender inequalities, overt and covert sexism, and widespread disregard for employee health. Despite positive gains over those thirty years, today there are still bosses behaving as you did. Respect has not become a universal characteristic of playing fields and temples, work environments and schools. So, Bad Boss, many years may have flowed by, but your style of contempt has not washed away with them. Your long-ago badness is relevant here and now. How do we go positive with it?
It’s possible you don’t remember your poor behavior, nor see yourself as ever having been anything but a good boss. It’s possible you’ve forgotten me. To refresh your memory, for a few months I worked as a lab technician for you at _ University in the mid-1980s. My job included making slides from your field samples and running them through the x-ray machine. During my short tenure, you said a slew of things I found offensive for their sexist content. I tried various tactics to make you stop. First I tried rebutting. You returned fire. That was a bust, escalating the encounters. Then I tried joking off your comments, another bust. Humor didn’t ease my unhappiness and discomfort at being addressed disrespectfully. Then I tried meeting your jabs with silence. Your comments didn’t slow down. My tactics had failed, and avoiding you was impossible since I reported to you to get new work, and the lab lay in the same suite as your office.
I wished I could cover my ears all day, and after the morning that you greeted me, not with, Hello, or, Good morning, but, “You bitch, what did you do with my box?”, I resorted, the next morning, to the technology of the day and did cover my ears with a portable cassette player—often not even turned on. I remember you coming to the door of the lab, seeing I was wearing the player, and saying, “Oh, she’s wearing her oblivion machine,” and leaving. At last, I had found something that “worked.” To this day, the only time anyone has ever called me a bitch, to my face, was that morning. (I knew nothing about the box.)
You also had me operate the x-ray machine without the mandated course, without one of the badges trained technicians wore (and knew to wear because of said course) and turned in monthly to measure their radiation exposure, and while sitting in the room with the activated machine (known by you to have a “wandering” beam), all to minimize time between your sample runs. When my advisor one day saw me in the x-ray machine room, he ran in and yanked me out, saying, “You haven’t had your children yet!”
That was some of the negative ancient stuff. You didn’t know that during the months of working for you, I dulled my feelings when I got home by eating whole loaves of bread in single sittings—which put me to sleep, and I joined a women’s group at the campus counselling services.
I persisted long enough in that science department to get my M.S.
If I could go back in time, and be a different me, I would tell you your speech offended me. I would ask you to stop, directly. If that failed, I would describe your behavior to your superior and ask to transfer to a different lab. If that failed, I would quit. About the x-ray machine, I would tell you I refused to operate it without following the safety protocols, once I learned of them from my advisor, and I would have reported your infraction. Did any of the dozen people in the counseling group suggest any of the above? Did my advisor? Nope. I do remember the counsellor suggested I beat on a pillow (representing you) with a spongy bat (representing my anger) at one of our sessions. I felt ridiculous, and it changed nothing with you, my boss.
Maybe this time-travel fantasy will support a young employee with more courage than I had. Maybe a reader of this open letter will create a positive take right now.
Yes, at the time, I did speak to my advisor. As I remember it, he told me of your being abused by your wife and your general dislike of women. While I felt sorry for you, I still hurt. You told me you preferred men to work for you and thought they performed better.
Writing of that time, more than thirty years ago, upsets me now because my response to you didn’t stop your bad behavior or protect others that may have followed me from your abuses, and I let you (and the pervasive sexism of that department) steer me away from the science I loved. I am sorry for the women, who may have followed me in your lab, that I did nothing that stopped you. I hope they can forgive my inaction. This is not rehashing; I wanted my apology here, and an apology is positive. Perhaps I can forgive myself.
From the present of this here and now, I am sure all of us, you included, Long-Ago Boss, were doing the best we knew how. And we are now, too.
But time is overdue for accepting that complacency.
Time is overdue for shaking up the definition of doing-the-best-we-know by supplying more knowledge and spreading it far and wide: respect can be taught and respect can be learned. This is why I am writing you, Long-Ago Boss! This is how I am finding a positive direction to take this negative period from the past, by stirring up all of us to behave better. Apologies and change are possible. Respect is possible.
Long-Ago Boss, this letter can do nothing to change what you said or did, but it might change what a current boss says or does. Please, join me in showing respect is possible.
Pamela Hobart Carter