Ambition Isn’t a Dirty Word – how I was bullied for being an ambitious Mom

This isn’t easy,  exposing yourself to the world and letting them judge you after you’ve already been judged.  That’s the thing about bullying, when you tell people there is a stigma. . . surely they did something to the other person, what else is wrong with them etc.  You’ve been hurt by one person, to then be judged and labeled by society.  But I need to speak out, to try to bring awareness and maybe change, because victims can’t keep being silenced and people can’t keep living in blissful ignorance.

#Metoo is about people in power controlling the subservient via fear (it doesn’t have to be sexual, physical or by a man) it just has to be behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended.  According to UK law bullying and harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010.  Examples of bullying or harassing behaviour include:

  • spreading malicious rumors
  • unfair treatment
  • picking on or regularly undermining someone
  • denying someone’s training or promotion opportunities

The law – bullying itself isn’t against the law, but harassment is. This is when the unwanted behaviour is related to one of the following: age, sex, disability, gender (including gender reassignment), marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation.

I have only been bullied by WOMEN, women in power.

Women who see themselves in me and who fear my drive and ambition.  I somehow make them look bad and feel insecure. My mere presence in the office reminds them daily of their prior suffering up the corporate ladder. They rationalize their bullying behavior as something that’s part of ‘what it takes to get ahead’ or don’t even realize their behavior isn’t right because it has become so acceptable.

I may not work in Hollywood, or in the fashion industry, but the corporate world is just as broken.  We just don’t have the star power to garner the attention needed to bring change.  I have always worked in agencies – Advertising/ Creative – US, Sydney, and London.

Agencies are notorious for hiring ambitious young graduates grateful to be in such a ‘cool’ job that they put up with everything and anything to stay in the ‘club’. Consequently, self-perpetuating and validating bullying and other bad behavior through their collective silence, which tells those in power they accept all of the inappropriate behavior towards themselves and others – rationalizing it as ‘part of the job’.

There is a silent pledge we all make when we accept our jobs ‘what happens in agency life stays in agency life’,  it’s part of what makes working in an uber hip young culture well, cool.  It’s the antithesis of corporate suits, nameplates on desks and stark cubicles.  HR is about hiring talent. Once I was given an unwanted lap-dance by a male colleague (I’d never even spoken to before) while out at a bar – everyone was laughing hysterically, including the HR guy standing next to me.

Fast forward to now. I am an ‘older’ American Mom of a two year old. My last job was ironically simultaneously the best and worst I have experienced.  I left the London grind before I got pregnant knowing my three+ hour commute wasn’t going to work.  My next job I wanted something closer to home and more personally challenging and fulfilling.  I got my wish and I was commuting to Windsor and working near the castle. I originally thought I had found my forever job (i.e. retire) – top heavy, older (as in above mid 40s) and majority families.

I was hired to work across two different types of strategy projects under two different bosses whose skills did not overlap. I had a male big boss and my female boss I reported to.  Unfortunately, two weeks after I started my job I became very ill. I found out that I was pregnant and went to the doctors. He said it’s normal for women to feel flu-ish for a week so to wait it out. I only got worse, a week turned into two weeks, turned into two months of me never leaving a bed for days. I couldn’t have a sip of water or a bite of cracker and lost 15lbs and was diagnosed with hyperemesis.

I returned to work after two months, and was thrown into three big projects working alongside my boss. This was the beginning of the bad that begin to infect my confidence, created self-doubt and paranoia along with stress that permeated my work and personal life.

My female boss (mid 40s) happened to be the worst possible combination of a childless (her choice she says) only child.  She didn’t have anything against children, babies or Moms (outwardly). If anything one would think she was nothing but supportive. Unfortunately her public view, interest and discussion of kids didn’t translate into empathy or understanding – unless of course you were her friend, which I clearly wasn’t.

This became most evident when I returned from maternity leave.  My first day back I discovered that I no longer had a big boss (nor did she) and there was no longer an opportunity to work across the two types of strategic projects I was promised. That was a blow. Her type of projects were going to spin my experience off on a tangent that I didn’t want to specialize in.

Her bullying was little snide comments and digs, while we were alone and always a patronizing tone and passive aggressive delivery.  It was the little things – me being randomly five minutes late (my teammates were too but silence + I’m the only one with an unpredictable toddler).  I tried to ignore, be as nice to her as possible, always saying hello, talking about only things she was interested in (organic/ vegan/ gluten-free food and luxury holidays), invited her along with my team to my house for three different parties and even handmade a Christmas present for her.

I put my head down literally and got things done.  I wanted to progress my career, to prove that being a Mom wasn’t going to hold me back.  I volunteered internally, started writing content pieces and created a new model.  After three months back I saw a gap in our client offering.  I created a tool combining my ad agency planning with my brand strategy consultancy experience.  This tool made me tick, made me get out of bed and excited to go to work each day.  It’s what I am good at – but was foreign to my boss and team.  I saw it as my calling – the way I could work on projects that I wanted to work on, that I had the ability to add the most value to, and the agency could see that I am not like the rest of my team and therefore there might be a chance for me to move out from under my boss.

We found out that our personalities, and work styles, are opposites but that’s no reason to bully someone.   I’m an Architect ( finding our was life-changing  – there were other people out there unique as me AND hardly any, only .8% are women are Architects, the rarest female personality type in the world.  It made sense.  It’s why I’ve never felt I’ve fit in anywhere in the world, at any age in my life.  It also explained why so many people don’t understand me (like my boss) and assume things about me/ my feelings which are always completely off-mark.  As an Architect I make decisions based on objectivity without emotions, it’s the opposite of what people expect from women or Mothers.

Publically we had a very professional relationship.  Colleagues picked up on the tension and the occasional tone-of-voice.  No one liked her – they all just learned to deal with her eccentricities, because she is good at her job.  I had my yearly review – three hours of her de-motivating me- through her patronising tone-of-voice, her passive aggressive comments and snide laughing as she told me:  “You thought you were clever creating that tool to try and get a new title to get away from me, but that all backfired on you, didn’t it.”, “I think you need to read this book, The Chimp Paradox, because your dad was probably a psycho sadomasochist like mine, or you can take a behavioral moderation class with HR”, and accused me of being ambitious like it was a negative , then laughed nervously when I told her I didn’t want her job.

I felt personally attacked, vulnerable and trapped.  She promised me hope (a potential raise in six months) and I was naive.  All I wanted was recognition and acknowledgement for going above and beyond.  I did what she tasked me with and brought in £150k over the next six months with my tool.  But no recognition or acknowledgement ever came.  Senior members thought a senior created my tool, and wrongly assumed anyone on my team could use it.  No one ever looked at the numbers, or realized what I was adding internally to our process and culture, or how happy clients were – “This is the best strategic presentation I have ever seen” and “Strategic thinking like this really makes it worth paying money for”.  My boss never saw what I worked on, was never in meetings with me, I told her the above and this is what she said – “That’s because what you do is logical and they are German.”

I knew I needed to get out.

I had no future under her.  If I stayed I would be kept in a box in the corner like an animal only being let out when it suited and never shown any love.  I started putting myself out there but I was stuck.  My commute was easy,  work from home when needed, gym was across the street, could drop-off and pick-up my daughter at nursery, and I worked on projects I liked and with everyone else in the agency.  Everything was predictable and therefore comfortable – I knew the crazy I had to deal with.

I found out I was pregnant again – I was stuck.  I had massive bleeding.  After ten days I thought something was wrong and I had probably miscarried.  It was worse.  I had an ectopic pregnancy and had to be rushed to surgery and have my whole tube removed.  I couldn’t tell my boss.  The first thing she would think was that I’m going to be off on maternity leave again soon so there is no reason to give me a raise or promote me.  I had to stay silent.  I told people I lost an organ but I couldn’t reveal what had really happened for fear she would find out and use it against me. She laughed when I asked about my six month check-in for a potential raise, two weeks later I was in surgery. I went to HR when I was first pregnant, and after she lied about everything she promised in my review.

I wanted it all on record.  I felt like she was trying to push me out.  The last straw for me was my interim review.  HR was present this time.  It was three hours of torture. She conducted a 360 review because I hadn’t worked with her the last 11 months.  We started with positives from my peers, she said, “These are some of the finest comments I have ever seen in my twenty years.”. The rest was mind games.  Everyone has things that they can improve and I’m not saying I don’t have flaws.  However, what I was presented with completely rocked me to the core.  Statements like, “She never goes above and beyond.” and “She only does the tasks that have been given to her” totally threw me sideways – it was if I had been transported to an alternate universe.  All of my volunteering, my model and tool – all of these I did on my own.  No one asked me to – I did it because I cared and I stupidly thought they did too.

I put my heart, soul and time away from my family into my agency.  I ran out of the meeting and went home shaking.  That night I called a colleague and asked her who think I never go above and beyond? That’s where it all begin to unravel.  My boss selected the six people she wanted, not the six who I worked with the most, knowing two would not be as positive which would help her to get rid of me. Her biasing contributors wasn’t the worst – she changed all of my feedback.  And I mean all of it.  I wrote to HR challenging my interim review and demanded to see the original comments.  They sent them to me and luckily I had a hard copy I saved from the review.  They willing gave me all of the evidence to prove she had changed every comment – making the positives less positive and negatives more negative.  She removed adjectives like ‘very’ and ‘unintentionally’ to change interpretations and even added her own sentences, “She appears to only do tasks she has been given”, “She needs to be more proactively front-footed” – which are the ones that rocked me to the core.

I couldn’t return to work.  My body went into shutdown mode starting with kidney pain, vertigo and depression.  I called off sick and worked from home.  It had been a week and time wasn’t healing anything, I still couldn’t face her but I needed to go into the office. Luckily, she was out that day.  I couldn’t focus – I felt empty and lost.  I saw my old big boss in the kitchen and told him what happened, that she changed my feedback – he told me to go to HR.  I wrote a long email and challenged my interim review.  I didn’t feel any better and left work that day not knowing that it would be in fact the last time I ever stepped foot into my office. I called off sick and was then signed off for stress.


I resigned in a three page long letter stating she bullied me and changed my feedback violating my contract.  HR said they would investigate.  They did but in a way that gave them the outcome they wanted,  “Her relationship with (her boss) was strained, I believe, as a result of those frustrations and as her line manager, (her boss) was in the firing line.” – I felt victimized all over again.  They blamed me for how my boss treated me.  Regarding my review tampering, ” it is common practice to summarise all feedback and bring it together into one document for easier reading and to depersonalise the comments.”.  I don’t see how anyone on any planet could say that the words she removed in any way depersonalised or summarized.  She intentionally and consciously did it for her own personal agenda.

No I’m not writing this to convince you I was bullied – it’s about me having a platform to speak out and reach others like me to do the same, and get the silent masses to help create change too.  You see the thing is you’re probably reading this thinking I’m any combination of: a troublemaker, disruptive, crazy, overly emotional bad employee – you’ve already filled in the blank in your head.  You may never be, or have been the bully, but your silent indifference and dismissal of me is why nothing really ever happens.

Why is it that whistleblowers or people like me, who stand up for what is right, putting society’s benefit over their own personal gain – we are the ones who are punished further?

We are ostracized.  We are labeled.  Our lives are forever changed as we are eternally burdened and scared with an invisible scarlet letter T for troublemaker.

I didn’t choose to be bullied. No one does.  You may think, ‘well there’s two sides to every story’.  Remember those who are bullied don’t do anything to incite it – it just happens.  Like at any moment, walking down the street we could be attacked or hit by a bus. It’s random and unpredictable.

So how can you help? We need more people like you think differently about those who have been bullied.

–  If you were my friend would you hold my hand? Give me a hug?  Or would you           distance yourself from me?

–  If you were in HR and I was a candidate would you label me a troublemaker and         discard my application? Or would you see my determination and dedication at my     previous job, my courage and conviction – but most of all my strong inner compass     guiding me to stand up for what is right?

– If you were my new boss would you have negative feelings towards me and doubt      my capabilities? Or would you talk to me with empathy and reassure me that                nothing like that would happen at your company or under your leadership?

– If you were my colleague would you look at me differently? Would you isolate me      and keep your distance for fear that coming into contact with me may ruin your          career?  Or would you say something to HR that you witnessed because you want to    do the right thing?

–  If you were a stranger would you tell me I must have imagined it? That it probably     wasn’t as bad as I have made it out to be? Or would you feel compassion and                 empathy for the difficulties I have been through and want to support me?

We can all learn from other’s experiences and adjust our own behaviors:

  1. More compassion and understanding towards victims
  2. Witnesses in the workplace could follow the advice given at airports and tube stations – ‘See it, say it, sort it’

Together we all will be able to create a better world for us, and our daughters to grow up in.  A world where ambition and hard-working go hand and hand and apply to men, women and Mother’s alike.


#IWD2018 #Timesup #Metoo #Pressforprogress #advertising #creative #branding #coroporate #bullying #harassment #mom #mother #millennialmom #embraceambition #16personalities #architect #ectopic #pregnant #pregnancy #workingmom #bulliedmom

One thought on “Ambition Isn’t a Dirty Word – how I was bullied for being an ambitious Mom

  1. Lee Merwick says:

    Very powerful statement , Colleen. I too have been bullied by other women in the workplace . I support your stand and agree wholeheartedl!

    Sent from my iPhone



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