With the topic of sexual harassment being one of the leading stories in the news recently, I find I have been having interesting conversations on the topic at work. It has been fascinating to watch this story unfold, even as I work on my dissertation, looking at why women are still struggling to make it to the CEO spot. I have always suspected that harassment might play a role in this struggle, and was not surprised to hear many stories of this nature in my interviews with female leaders.
The conversations at work, with both male and female colleagues, usually center around the high-profile predator du jour, and whether or not the accusations warrant the firing/resigning/public outcry that ensues.
The more interesting conversations, however, are the talks about why the women waited until now to report this. It is difficult for people (men in particular, in my experience) to understand why a woman would not report sexual harassment right away. Why did they not come forward when it happened? Why is the #metoo movement, and now the #timesup movement so compelling?
During a recent conversation with a colleague of mine who heads up a company in a different industry, he related to me that he was certain that this kind of behavior does not go on in his company. If it did, he would deal with it swiftly and immediately. He then shared with me a story of a woman who had lodged a low-level complaint, and indeed, as he had stated, the gentleman at fault was immediately reprimanded and reassigned. This, however, I would be willing to bet, was the exception. In most cases, I am certain the women simply did not report the incidents.
I have found the best way of helping people to understand how this works is to walk them through a scenario.
You are a 25 year old female supervisor with ambition out the wazoo. Your ultimate goal is to someday run a large company. You work hard, and you get results. You are at a company function after work when a senior executive, male, starts talking with you. The first thought is, “Wow! I am making connections! People who are people know who I am!” The conversation turns personal, with questions about your family, what part of town you live in, and your second thought is, “Wow! This senior executive is taking a personal interest in me! If I cultivate this relationship, perhaps this is the sponsor I need to get myself to the next level!” And then the bomb drops. He says something like, “I love that you are wearing such a short skirt.”
What do you do?
These conversations, and worse, take place all the time. I’ll tell you what I would do, and what most of the women I interviewed did in similar circumstances – try to laugh it off, and extricate ourselves from the conversation as quickly as possible. And do nothing further. Why? For a million reasons.
First, we are tough and we are strong. We are not going to let some lecherous barbarian have power over us. Second, this guy is a senior executive. In a game of he-said she-said, he knows all the right people and will invariably win (or so we think). Third, maybe we misunderstood? Maybe he really meant something else – although what that could be is a mystery. Fourth, we know what happens if you report something like this. There is an investigation and a whole lot of commotion created, and if we want to get ahead, we cannot be saddled with the ‘drama’ label.
So, it is best to brush it off and move on. Deep breath and forget it happened.
Or is it?
What we are finding out now is that these instigators are repeat offenders. If they are doing this to one person, they are likely doing this to others. They are creating an environment where this kind of behavior is acceptable. This can undermine the confidence a person (the target) has in themselves, and makes it less likely they will achieve their goals. More on this at another time. And frankly, it just isn’t right.
We all have our lines that if crossed will force us to action. As I discussed in a previous blog post, when I was physically violated by a male co-worker at a previous job, I reported it. Based on what happened following that report, I can’t say I would have recommended the same action to a fellow female colleague. In fact, since that time, I’ve had my shoulders rubbed, my hand grabbed or held, and other such possibly independently benign encounters. I have not reported a single one of them. I shrugged them all off.
I am now reconsidering how I should act should something like this happen to me again. Hopefully this is never the case, but should something take place, I will definitely consider my response in a new light.
I am interested in other thoughts on this subject. This is a complex and messy topic. I am thankful for the environment now that allows us to bring this to the forefront and address what was previously hidden. While I know some are concerned the pendulum will swing too far and innocent people will be caught up in the fervor, I, for one, am glad that this is finally being addressed out in the open. Women deserve to be treated with respect, dignity, and an equal shot at opportunities.
As always, keep it positive and smile!
Happy Thursday! Stay warm!