To report or to brush off?

pexels-photo-622135.jpegWith 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.

Your thoughts?

As always, keep it positive and smile!

Happy Thursday! Stay warm!

Advertisements

Mentors…the subtle sexism that may keep women from finding one

I don’t mean to go political. Today, a political discussion only causes divisiveness when what we all need is to come together and work things out. That said, the following (political) tweet caught my eye last week:

Capture

If you are not aware, apparently Mr. Pence’s rule states that he does not have meetings alone with women. Social media has had quite a bit to say about this tweet, not the least of which is the obvious insinuation that men cannot help themselves from abusing and harassing women. We all know this is false, and patently unfair. It would not be a stretch for me to say that nearly every single male colleague I have worked with in the past 10 years has been respectful and has caused me no concern or anxiety that I was putting myself in a dangerous position. I realize I am one of the lucky ones. I also realize the ridiculousness in claiming “luck” in this situation.

That isn’t to say I have been immune to this kind of culture. Just one example: In my first job out of school, I was physically assaulted by a male colleague at work (he breathed heavily on my neck and grabbed me in an inappropriate place). When I reported it (I didn’t know to do anything differently), my career took a sudden downturn. I became a “difficult” employee; someone who had to be ‘handled’. Needless to say, I didn’t last long there, and learned a lesson along the way. That lesson is not the point of this particular post.

The problem with this tweet I want to discuss here is something that goes deeper. There is an insidious underbelly to this tweet that not only paints men as lacking control, but creates a distance between men and women workplace. It creates a difference where no difference exists, or is even appropriate.

In my research, and the research of many others, it is clear that one of the most important components of success in climbing the career ladder is having a strong, supportive mentor. In recent interviews I conducted with successful female leaders in my industry, I heard the following:

“Luckily I have a boss who is now really invested in my future and sees a lot going for me and I would say I am one of the lucky ones. I am one of the ones who is going to be put in a good position in certain roles and will continue developing.”

“I would say that [my mentor] is the number one reason for helping me get ahead.”

Because a mentor must, necessarily, be someone higher up the corporate ladder, many times mentors are men. And, because mentoring is a rather personal endeavor, the most effective mentorship conversations take place one-on-one. If men cannot be trusted to be alone with women, or choose to never be alone with women, we have cut off the possibility of a mentorship. We loose this critical opportunity to support and develop women.

Here is a real life example of this. Quite some time ago, I had a young woman working for me who wanted to take her career in a new and different direction. As it happened, this new direction was a great fit for what our organization needed at the time. The only problem was that she needed some specific experience under her belt to be effective. We had one gentleman in the office who was doing some of this type of work, and clearly would be a great informal mentor for her. The only problem – he refused to meet with her one-on-one, and refused to take her with him to an important company meeting out of town, citing his unwillingness to be alone with a ‘young woman’.

After much deliberation and scrambling, I was finally able to make this happen for her by finding the funds for another person to travel with them to the meeting. What a ridiculous situation to be in. To this day, I am not entirely certain of the gentleman’s motivation behind his refusal, but it rang in the same discordant tone as the tweet above.

In case this isn’t yet clear: Men, you are not helping women by avoiding meetings with them. Women need mentors to get ahead in the workplace. Men will, oftentimes, need to be those mentors. All that is needed to make this happen is decency and respect.

Keep it positive! And smile!

Happy Wednesday!