Expecting Harassment: Women and Workplace

Source Picture: Amnesty International

Note: March 8, 2023 is International Women’s Day. March is International Woman’s Month.

“The only women who don’t believe that sexual harassment is a real problem in this country are women who have never been in the workplace.” – Cynthia Heimel

A few weeks back, I asked my friend Molly Hewitt to drop me some topics I should explore writing about. She wrote back several ideas:

  • What really is “work/life balance” and how does that fit in with business goals?
  • Remote work – now a thing of the present – how do you make yourself stand out amongst 100’s of candidates?
  • And from my lady friends: In this day and age, women expect to be harassed to a certain extent. What is the hardline in the sand, and how do you document for HR?

That last one smacked me across my head like a Loony Toon or Tom & Jerry cartoon. Women expect to be harassed… Let me write that again. Women EXPECT to be harassed.

I didn’t know how to process that, so I reached out to Molly to ask her if she’d be willing to expand on that comment for me. More on that in a little bit.

I consider myself a born-again feminist, meaning, it has taken me a while and a lot of learning to come to my current understanding of the world. I always thought I had respect for women, but it turns out, I probably didn’t as much as I thought. That’s OK. Sometimes, it takes people time and energy to come to a better understanding.

By the way, if someone is “triggered” by the word feminist, grow up. Feminism means advocacy of women’s rights based on the equality of the sexes. Equality doesn’t mean “same.” Men and women (and non-binary for that matter) are not the same. That’s not the argument. The argument is all people regardless of gender or sex deserve to be treated as fairly and as equitability as everyone else. The differences should not exclude opportunity, fairness, justice, or investment.

This is what I have come to understand.

My growth and education eventually took me to an understanding that the system – and in the context of this article, the workplace system – is not set up for women to succeed as easily as others. There are many powerful, successful women. It’s true, but just as Black and Brown people need to jump through extra hurdles to prove they are “worthy” (whatever that means), women must jump through similar hurdles to prove they have what it takes to be taken seriously.

Now, imagine Black and Brown women, who have TWO hurdles to jump through, not just one! More on that in a bit, as well.

In addition, my understanding also grew to acknowledge that in this male dominated system, women have been conditioned to be afraid – afraid of saying no, afraid of being unattractive, afraid of being attractive, afraid of having children (but also punished if they don’t), afraid of being fired, afraid of being stared at in the gym, afraid of being followed to their cars, afraid of being jumped in a park while jogging, afraid of being abused, afraid of being harassed, afraid of much worse.

This is not my experience, nor would it be. I’m a White male. Many White males have not had it easy. I haven’t. That’s not the point.

I have never had it worse because of my gender (or skin color for that matter). Being a White male doesn’t mean things are automatically easy, but it does mean at minimum I had a head start towards the finish line others didn’t get. Women in our workplaces are starting the race several spots behind the guys and are expected to keep up. It’s not a fair race.

Women should not expect to be harassed in the workplace. This crushes me inside, but maybe I am naïve. Again, this isn’t my experience, nor would it be.

I have learned a lot, but still have much left to learn. So, Molly’s comment was an opportunity for me to get curious and continue learning. I want to know more, so that I can help make changes. I reached out to Molly to ask her to elaborate and help me better understand her comment. I also reached out to several other women, whom I admire deeply and learn from regularly. Their collective insight has helped me better understand.

My girlfriends and I discuss this topic all the time

Molly Hewitt is a healthcare entrepreneur based in Nashville, TN. She says she learned a lot of things about how to succeed at business over her career, but a few trends kept popping up.

“I noticed along my journey that many business leaders tied their success to knowing how to tie a tie, knowing how to cut and light a cigar and, knowing how to golf. You can probably see the problem here,” Molly told me.

The lesson was that business is for men, and men alone. Stories abound of women executives expecting to know how to shoot skeet, enjoy bourbon, and smoke cigars to succeed and show they are “one of the guys.” Molly asks what if the shoe were on the other foot?

“I don’t expect most men to be comfortable going to a mani/pedi session with a group of women. Or even if they are, the expectation shouldn’t be that everyone should participate in such activities to prove themselves[MH1] .”

All this creates an air of male driven toxicity. And I don’t use that word lightly. Honestly, such words have become lightning rods for dismissive thoughts or predisposed judgment. I don’t doubt that some people who read this may think “Oh there it is, the men bashing is starting!” That’s fine, I suppose, but it doesn’t help solve anything to create Strawmen fallacies. It should be common sense logic that if men do not take into account the other sex, then how can they expect to be inclusive and accommodating for women, or create an environment where women can do their best work and succeed as much as anyone else? This isn’t men bashing. This is logical workplace construction.

This type of machismo grandstanding creates an environment where it’s OK to harass women, many times scot-free. Molly described a situation that happened to her at a past company where she worked.

“I was in a Zoom meeting, and this high level VP private messaged me ‘I like the color of your lipstick today. It looks good on you.’ I was so taken aback, like, what do you say or type to something like that?! I asked colleagues after the meeting, and they said they didn’t receive a similar message, but thought that was incredibly creepy! My girlfriends and I discuss this topic all the time – how we as women have had to adapt our beliefs, thoughts, and fears in male-driven cultures to advance our careers.”

She continued, “and this other time, someone once told me, that they didn’t add their best skill to their CV, which was giving amazing back rubs. It was the first text message I had ever received from that individual (whom I didn’t give my number to) and completely unsolicited. It literally shocks but comes as no surprise how aggressive and confident certain individuals are.”

Black Women Face Similar, Yet Different Challenges

Molly isn’t alone unfortunately, as harassment, and not just sexual harassment, is much more common that I’d think most would like to admit, and the type of harassment and its effects differ depending on one’s melanin levels.

Kimberly Bozeman currently resides in California, and she has worked in corporate America most of her career. As a Black woman, she says her experience has been different. She says that of course Black women face sexual harassment issues, but speaking for herself, she says her experience is different.

“As a Black woman in corporate America, I faced more general harassment like microaggressions than sexual harassment. That doesn’t mean Black women don’t worry about that. I saw a report that stated Black women filed almost three times as many sexual harassment claims as White or Hispanic women. It’s more systemic issues, but thankfully, I have not faced them directly.”

Kim says she consistently has to remind others that “feel good slogans” such as “be your authentic self” and “just have confidence” don’t work for Black women.

“Black women are exhausted. I just feel exhausted. I operate in a system that wasn’t made for me. I don’t need people to understand it as much as simply acknowledge it. I made a conscious effort to stop fitting myself into society’s box. My trauma is valid, but I cannot focus on it 24/7 or it will cripple me.”

I’ve spent the past several years really taking time to educate myself about the Black experience in America. Ahmaud Arbery’s and George Floyd’s murders opened my eyes and mind in a way it wasn’t open prior. It’s unfortunate, and I wish I had been more involved earlier on; but this is my reality. I needed to know more, so I did the work and learned as much as I could. I’ve never liked the term “ally.” I especially don’t like it now, as I feel it either automatically puts walls between people or is used as a marketing gimmick. I prefer to think of myself as a person who believes that human beings deserve respect, love, kindness, and opportunity regardless of their biological, personal, or societal idiosyncrasies. Maybe that’s naïve, but it’s how I want to be in this world – respectful, kind.

 Speaking with Kim reminded me of all that I had learned, and how much I need to.

“The phrase ‘be yourself’ is different for Blacks. Workplaces can be cesspools. The power dynamic is such that I always have it in the back of my mind. I’m terrified to ask someone to sponsor me because I can go from ‘pet to threat.’ Then all of a sudden, I’m in danger more so than I already feel.”

You still make money off sexual harassment claims?

In 2002, a bright eyed and bushy tailed young law student walked into her first clerkship. She was excited to begin learning and becoming the legal professional she always dreamed of.

The student was Kate Bischoff, an employment attorney from the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. She has since been practicing law for 20 years, and she believes at least 80-90% of all women will face harassment in the workplace.

“I define harassment differently,” Kate told me. “Lawyers have really made it hard to understand what harassment is due to the legal thresholds that are placed on situations. To me, when you’re actually facing harassment, you struggle with it. Sexual harassment is any conduct or comment of a sexual nature in the workplace. I define it vey broadly, which is a way to hold people accountable for the ‘little comments’ that build up over time.”

Kate recalled her clerkship in 2002. She said one of her first assignments was to assist on a sexual harassment claim. Bewildered, Kate asked the team “You still make money on sexual harassment claims?” She got laughs as a reply – silly kid, go make the copies we need.

“I don’t think most women necessarily ‘expect’ to be harassed,” Kate said. “At least maybe not at first. I think the first time it happens, it comes as a surprise. Women aren’t sure what to do about it. The harassment is seemingly small, like comments about physical looks or maybe a small gift. Women don’t report because they don’t want to make waves and feel like they’re risking their jobs. Eventually, the unwanted behavior grows and adds up.”

HR is Failing Female Employees

As a male working professional, I have received two comments about my looks over my 15-year career. The first was by my supervisor when I was an intern. He commented that he was glad to see me finally wearing a belt color that matched my shoes. I was new and didn’t know that’s what I was supposed to do. The second was a comment from an anonymous employee who said that I shouldn’t wear a hoody over a Zoom chat. This was at the height of COVID Pandemic. Imagine the comment if they would have known that I was wearing PJ pants at that Zoom call.

I don’t have hard data, but something tells me that professional working men do not often get comments about their looks, at least not in the same context as professional working women. During my conversations for this article, these women all told me the same thing: They received, or know women who received, the following comments at some point over their careers:

  • You should smile more.
  • You’re very pretty.
  • Your hair is very nice.
  • You’re having a bad hair day!
  • You look good in that outfit.
  • You look mad today.

Women get this regularly. They didn’t ask for it, and they shouldn’t have to put up with it. Unfortunately, many of them do. Probably because they perceive a system that doesn’t support them. Many feel the system isn’t built to protect them, or worse, it’s built to protect the harassers.

“Women are taught to be polite by society” Molly told me. “So often I feel, and many of my female friends who are organizational leaders feel, that our friendliness is oftentimes misinterpreted as being ‘interested’ and then it’s our fault when we need to set boundaries. I don’t report it because I don’t feel HR is a resource for these things. If I go to HR, I don’t expect to have a job, so I just let it go. Then I let another one go, and before you know it, I’m suddenly sitting on 20 inappropriate comments or advances.”

To quote Kim again: “Workplaces can be cesspools.”

Kate believes that HR isn’t necessarily equipped to handle these situations, which supports Molly’s experience.

“HR is not good at helping people know they don’t need to accept the little things before they become the big things. One reason women don’t come forward is that they don’t want to risk their careers, so they say, it’s ‘minor, so I won’t worry about it now.’”

This is complete bullshit, and HR is at least partially to blame. Women who are harassed and want justice should not worry about losing their jobs. Harassers need to worry about losing their jobs, and there is no other logical conclusion that any reasonable person should come to.

HR is failing our female employees.

Yes, it is true that harassment can be conducted by anyone. Women can harasses men (and have). Men can harass men (and have). Women can harass women (and have). But let’s be serious, harassment is in part about power and control. Who holds power in many, if not most, organizations? Men. So, this is an issue that, in my mind, can be clearly defined in broad terms as such. All three women also said as much when they repeated informed me that harassment comes many times from males in positions of power – whether it’s at a senior level or a frontline manager level.

A quick but important side note, Kim did say that the Black experience, while not a monolith, and she does not speak for all Black men, women, non-binary individuals, that harassment for Blacks comes from all different places. It’s not specifically a male driven issue for her. She said there are many instances of White women being threatened by Black professionals. Not all of it is intentional, but small comments add up over time and wear on folks.

At its worse, HR’s inability to make major influence in the arena of anti-harassment can lead to someone dying. Think that is hyperbole? It’s not. Home Depot had a very public case back in 2017 in the Chicago suburbs. Another public case involved Walgreens in Colorado in 2022.

“Sexual harassment classes are a joke,” Molly told me. “They are held to check a box.” Unfortunately, she isn’t wrong in a sense. A lot of organizations just check the box on them.

So, what is HR to do? A lot more, I’d argue. My profession has a lot of trust it must build when it comes to creating an environment that truly doesn’t tolerate sexual harassment, racial harassment, or otherwise. Here’s some ideas:

  • First, make sure the organization has an Anti-Harassment Policy (in a broad sense – sexual, bullying, discrimination, etc). If it doesn’t have one, make sure there is a good attorney on speed dial.
  • Make sure the Anti-Harassment Policy is clear, contains minimal legalese so employees can easily understand it, and ensure it contains clear instructions for employees to report harassment. As Kate Bischoff says, “once a manager knows, the organization knows.”
  • Train, train, train, and not just checking the box! Train employees in an interactive and meaningful way. Train at least once a year. Hold a training course for employees and another for supervisors. Supervisors need to know they have an active role in ensuring harassment is addressed and stopped.
  • Consider holding “bystander” training, which teaches people how to step in and help employees address harassment.
  • Hold true diversity awareness training, and bring in folks who KNOW the experience. If a White individual is speaking on specific Black experiences, this isn’t ideal, and even could be problematic. Employees need to know about specific experiences from those who experience harassment, microaggressions, etc.
  • HR needs to walk around and meet people where they are. Talk to staff, learn about them. Let them know who you are and that you are approachable. If you go to them with an open mindset of curiosity, they will come to you and open up themselves.
  • Develop an attitude of embracing ALL complaints and seek them out. Kate says this is ideal policy because it builds a workplace of psychological safety and encourages others to behave well since the workplace culture is one of holding others accountable.

Women who work in a hostile environment need to get out as fast as they can, but this isn’t always possible. Even if the environment isn’t obviously hostile, the one thing women can do to protect themselves is to document, document, document. This isn’t always done naturally, but it’s the single best way to help prevent a he said / she said situation, and build your case. When documenting, consider the following:

  • Screen shots. If you get an inappropriate comment via text, Teams chat, or whatever, take a screen shot, hopefully with a time and date stamp.
  • Specifics. Document the who, what, where, why, when. Ensure you have the time, place, and anything else that’s important, like the behavior and/or what was said.

It also might seem rudimentary, but having a clear understanding of what constitutes harassment can be one of the biggest things to help. Remember, all the following items constitute sexual harassment:

  • Vulgar jokes, sharing sexual anecdotes, or performing sexual gestures;
  • Staring in a sexually suggestive manner;
  • Making sexual comments about appearance, clothing, or body parts;
  • Inappropriate touching, including pinching, patting, rubbing, or purposefully brushing up against another person.

Any of these behaviors cannot and should not be tolerated. Knowledge is power. Read more here, here, here and here.

The Indifference of Good Men

I fear the US presidential election of 2016 will be far more consequential than we all may know. It already has been to some degree. Mostly, I will remember it for allowing sexual assault to be justified when it’s against people we don’t like.

 I know men who laughed off an infamous comment by the former president, He Who Shall Not Be Named. “Grab them by the p****.” I know men who said:

“He was joking.”

“Who cares?”

“It’s not that big a deal.”

Something makes me wonder, would these same men think it’d be a joke, or a big deal, or would they have cared if the comment was made in reference to their mother, wife, daughter???

Maybe they’re not thinking at all. Jennifer Wright is an author and media critic. She tweeted the following:

“Jackson Katz, a social researcher, asked men what they do on a daily basis to avoid being sexually assaulted. Then he asked women.”

Men, according to the study, didn’t think about it. Women on the other hand had over 30 responses ranging from “Don’t go jogging at night” to “Make sure my family knows my itinerary.” The entire list is sad… but likely has saved a few women’s lives.

During my educational journey post-George Floyd murder, I learned that it is not up to Black people to educate Whites about their experiences and history. All the information is there for Whites to learn. They must put in the work.

Similarly, I feel the same regarding women’s experiences and history. It’s not women’s jobs to educate men. It’s men’s job to educate themselves. Some are up for the challenge. Others, unfortunately, not so much.

While researching this piece, I found an article that captures what I feel to be the main reason:

Why haven’t we made more progress in the areas of equality? Heather theorized that men are afraid of receiving the same unfair treatments they have doled out for so long. But by viewing the issue through this lens, she believes they’re missing a key point: “That’s not the ‘novel’ that diversity and inclusion, or gender equity, or any of the ideas behind equity is based on. It’s based on a system that works well for everyone. Everyone.”

For some men, at least, this lack of education or dismissal of the experiences of others comes from a place of a perceived loss of power, or more directly, a loss of power that will then be used against men. This isn’t the case. It’s a false narrative. While many men deserve it, I believe ultimately, women, and all people, just want to be treated fairly and honestly. They want to live a life that isn’t full of fear and anxiety, not live a life of revenge.

Elise Michaels is a Men’s Health Coach, and she recently posted this on Instagram:

A man who refuses to own up to his mistakes or decisions is not a man, he is a coward.

He thinks he is triumphant because he has ‘won,’ but the price he pays is his manhood and loss of respect from anyone who sees him for who he really is.

Cowards are made when a man refuses to even the playing field.

He chooses lying, manipulation, and deceit to get an unfair advantage because he lacks so much confidence in his own skillset, he does not believe he can win or be ‘safe’ without trickery.

Instead of building himself up, instead of learning from his mistakes, he continues to perpetuate a lie no matter how long it’s been or how many people he hurts.

He cares only about himself and destroys everyone around him.

Cowards are the epitome of what’s making our nation crumble. Men who cannot take personal responsibility and consistently want more when they are giving less.

Unfortunately, cowardly men run many organizations, or run for public office. How do they keep getting into power? I’m not entirely sure, but the question reminds me of a line from one of my favorite movies, The Boondock Saints. A priest is giving an impassioned speech on the rise of crime and violence in a world caving in around corruption.

Monsignor: And I am reminded, on this holy day, of the sad story of Kitty Genovese. As you all may remember, a long time ago, almost thirty years ago, this poor soul cried out for help time and time again, but no person answered her calls. Though many saw, no one so much as called the police. They all just watched as Kitty was being stabbed to death in broad daylight. They watched as her assailant walked away. Now, we must all fear evil men. But there is another kind of evil which we must fear most, and that is the indifference of good men.

Moving Froward

The indifference of good men. There are still good men, but they need to be more vocal and less hidden. They cannot be afraid to ruffle feathers, start an uncomfortable conversation, or use their privilege to give away their privilege to others.

Most of all, they need to listen.

Kim believes we still live in a segregated world, and the only way to remove barriers is to engage with others.

“We must be intentional about humanizing each other. We need to break bread with one another, listen. All experiences are valuable and can teach us more than we think,” Kim said.

Kate maintains that organizational leaders must embrace complaints. “Seek out complaints. Thank your employees for coming forward, and be grateful they trust you,” she told me. “Don’t squander this great responsibility.”

Ultimately, being a woman in the workplace is a weird, confusing endeavor, and it’s one I will never know, but I can do my part to make it less weird, less confusing, and (most importantly) safer.

For any woman reading this, who has been told to smile more, who has been touched inappropriately, who has been shut down when trying to provide a new perspective, who believes they are alone, Molly has a message.

“It’s important for you to know that you don’t have to put up with harassing behavior. It isn’t OK, and you can protect yourself! It’s not unprofessional to cut off a conversation or voice yourself if you feel uncomfortable. You have value and you bring worth to the table. You’re not a bitch or hard to work with for refusing to accept poor behavior.”

I am not sure how many women expect to be harassed. I am not sure if women do, in fact, expect to be harassed in the workplace. All I do know is that one harassment is one too many, whether it’s sexual harassment or discrimination, and I will continue fighting for a world where people are punished for harassing women, not rewarded.

© 2023 HR Philosopher. All rights reserved.

Published by Paul LaLonde

Husband. Father. Passionate about HR, helping people, and doing the right thing. Also, heavy metal, craft beer, and general nerd things! #SHRM19Blogger. Find me on Twitter at @HRPaul49 and LinkedIn. Thoughts, views and opinions on this site are solely my own and do not represent those of my employer or any other entity ​with which I have been, am now, or will be affiliated.

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