All too familiar – Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas, Schenectady: ‘We need to make sure that people are speaking up’

Schenectady City Councilwoman Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas in 2018

Schenectady City Councilwoman Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas in 2018

Looking back on the early years of her career, Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas remembers sexual harassment in the workplace was ubiquitous.

“I don’t know of any woman that is in my age group that is in the professional world that doesn’t have a story to tell, where they have either been mistreated, dismissed or not had the ability to express themselves,” Zalewski-Wildzunas said.

The 61-year-old Schenectady City Councilwoman started her banking career in Washington, D.C. She eventually made her way to the Capital Region, where she now works in commercial real estate.

During the first few years of her career, she recalls going to what was supposed to be a business lunch with a client and her boss. However, when she and her boss arrived at the restaurant, the client called and said they couldn’t make it.

“So now I’m here with [this] very senior person, and he’s having a glass of wine and he takes it upon himself to say, ‘It’s time for you to have a glass of wine now that we don’t have to meet with a client,’ ” Zalewski-Wildzunas said.

Her boss proceeded to order her a glass of wine, and when Zalewski-Wildzunas refused, saying she needed to get back to the office, he attempted to persuade her to stay and drink.

“He was quite a bit older than me, old enough to be my father, and at the time I was newly divorced. But [he] wasn’t anybody that I would ever have any sort of inclination of having a relationship with,” Zalewski-Wildzunas said.

She refused the glass of wine, though she said it may have hurt her career.

In another instance, this time later in her banking career, Zalewski-Wildzunas said she was in the process of setting up a projector to give a presentation in a conference room. A secretary at the office was assisting her, and they were both kneeling on the floor, trying to get the cords for the projector hooked up. A male co-worker was standing nearby and a former executive at the company walked past and said, “You got ’em right where you want ’em. Down on their knees. Perfect location,” according to Zalewski-Wildzunas.

“It was probably one of the most demeaning comments made to me,” Zalewski-Wildzunas said.

She reported what happened to the company’s human resources department and the former executive was moved to another floor in the building. From Zalewski-Wildzunas’ perspective, speaking up about those situations and calling out sexual harassment is important, though she recognizes the cost of coming forward.

“A lot of times women just don’t get the respect they deserve or need. It’s harder when they don’t have the respect to actually speak up because they’re intimidated, afraid, concerned. … Quite frankly, after every time I’ve spoken up, [I’ve thought], ‘Oh that was probably a really bad idea. I might get fired,’ ” Zalewski-Wildzunas said.

But she believes sharing her experiences will ultimately help others.

“By sharing some of these stories, we’ll hopefully make women more aware of what’s acceptable and not acceptable. We need to make sure that people are speaking up so that other people will feel more apt and unafraid,” Zalewski-Wildzunas said.

As far as whether or not she’s noticed a change over the years, especially after the #MeToo movement started, Zalewski-Wildzunas said, “I think they’re more talked about. I think they’re more talked about every time there’s a highlighted story about whomever it may be. Do I think that it would stop? I think at some point, the stories are going to stop because it’s going to resonate through to everybody. And it’s going to help stop the bad behavior.”

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