I went to a house party and met the MD of a bank. We got to talking about business. A friend had told me I needed to do more business development for my company. I told the man how we could align his bank’s goal and their communications strategy. It was a real conversation between equals or so I thought.
Then in the middle of the conversation which at this time had been all business he told me I was beautiful. Asked if I knew how beautiful I was and whether it was from my mom or my dad that I got my looks. I mumbled my words and said something like I don’t like talking about that. He said okay.
We continued talking about business. Then he got up to get a drink. This man whose name I had only just learned who is 20 years my senior put his hand on my thigh and squeezed it as he got up. We were at a small dinner party at a table where we had just eaten.
His hand on my body made me shudder. I felt violated but I didn’t scream I didn’t say a word. I just sat there in my discomfort. He came back and we talked some more about business. Thankfully it started to rain. I was thrilled. I got up and left the crowd and went downstairs feeling sorry for myself.
He had reduced me.
I got a Whatsapp message from a man in my community, a successful much celebrated man. He said he had a business idea he thought I would be great at. I said sure I’d love to hear about it. I asked when we could schedule a call.
Before we could schedule it he writes that his woman is very jealous, so we are going to have to manage that. I let him know that won’t be a problem for me as I don’t mix business with pleasure and said that she may sit in all our meetings. I let him know that I was only I interested in business.
We keep talking and he says that chemistry can happen. That he has the power to change lives. I say we all have our talents but certainly I didn’t see any lines being crossed where I was concerned as business was all I was interested in.
We talk a bit more about potentially meeting in person for work. We discuss logistics for that potential business deal. Before we get off the phone he says he is sorry for being flirty that that’s just how he is. I tell him that we all have our afflictions and I pray God helps him with his demons.
He then responds that his affliction is sex and asks me what mine is. I tell him work. To which he responds that I have to give him more. I tell him that in a business relationship with boundaries that’s all he would get. He said nothing more.
I didn’t tell him but he reduced me.
A man who works for the government who had asked me to draft a concept note reached out to catch up. I told him I was well. I asked how he was. He said he was doing his exercises if I would like to join him to do crunches and leg raises. Another time he had called me darling and sweetheart in conversation about work.
I didn’t tell him but he reduced me.
The other day I was having a meeting with my team and this man yelled out over at me and said you know you’re very addictive. I told him that I was sure I wasn’t but he insisted that I was. He said he couldn’t look away. It made me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t tell him but he reduced me.
Men are foolish. They can’t help themselves. That is what I grew up hearing and this is what I have been playing in the back of my mind when I excuse these sexist behaviors.
I am a pretty outspoken woman. I have taken on corrupt politicians. I have called out big business when they failed. I have spoken out on cultural taboos but time and again I fail to speak up for myself. I don’t have the words to express how reduced I feel when men speak to me like a sex object. I don’t speak out in these instances. I try to be diplomatic, funny, and I deflect. I don’t feel I have the power to fully express my hurt and anger. I don’t feel protected to respond with the contempt that I feel.
I suffer and smile and compensate by trying to prove that I’m not a sex object by continuing in conversations right after a man has crossed the line. I think if I can tell him about work, business, and if I can express my ideas he will see me as a person and not just flesh for the taking.
It never works.
I try to stay open-minded to believe that it is possible for men to engage with me for my ideas, for business but in Sierra Leone those encounters still remain few and far in-between.
Ten years ago when I moved back home I wasn’t prepared for this overt sexism and objectification. When men propositioned me back then I didn’t have the tools to understand what was happening.
Now that I do understand that this is what everyday sexism is and this is how it manifests in the lives of women, I’m bloody exhausted.
To live and work in Sierra Leone as a woman you have to be in two minds every time you engage with men in business or work. Always trying to ascertain whether they really want to do business or they’re using the promise of an opportunity to gain access to you so they can proposition you. As you go higher up in your career you expect these incidents to lessen but they don’t. And because those in positions of power are men it feels as though we women cannot escape sexual objectification if we want to grow. No amount of education or exposure can protect, especially if you are unmarried.
If it is like this for me a middle class, foreign educated woman, who owns her own business I can’t begin to imagine what it must be for other women with less education or financial independence.
When a man treats me like a sex object; touches me without my consent, makes unwanted lewd remarks they are expressing the privileges that come with manhood. They don’t have to control themselves or their behaviors. This is unacceptable. I really have had enough.
So today after I cried from frustration and a feeling of powerlessness I decided I am done with silence. I will not let any man reduce me in that way ever again and leave without hearing that they violated and demoralized me.
If your business deal or your contract comes with your penis attached you can flush it all down the toilet.
If any man is sexist in word or deed I am going to speak up. Enough is enough. And if you’re a woman in Sierra Leone reading this I hope you feel the courage to do the same.
Zero tolerance for everyday sexism.