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The Smart Girl Struggle: Being Smart Often Makes It Harder For Women To Stop Sexual Harassment

Joan recently defended her thesis and became a full professor. She told me she is an exceptional math teacher, and she has gotten rave reviews from her students. She has no doubt about her abilities to teach. She loves it. A colleague started pressuring her to have a relationship with him, however, telling her that he was in love with her and that he just knew they had a connection. She was not interested.

She repeatedly told him no in various, very planned and collegial ways, but he started emailing her, and continued pressuring her. She didn’t want to lose the professional contact. She thought she knew how to be appropriate in turning someone down politely – after all, she was very smart and successful.

He told other colleagues that she was leading him on, and they appeared to sympathize with him. When she started running into him in her department, she became very afraid. She already struggled with some anxiety, and it became severe, but no one seemed to take her story seriously. They seemed to think she was just not being clear enough, and that reinforced that this was her problem. She thought she should be smart enough to figure this out, but she couldn’t seem to do that. She lost weight, and some mornings she was afraid to get out of bed. Ultimately, she quit her teaching position, even though there was a plan to make it full time, and took time off to recover from her anxiety.

When she was ready to apply for jobs again, she decided that teaching online classes would be the best way to be successful at her job and manage her anxiety. She was afraid to go back to her old employer because she worried her reputation there was now tarnished. She kept getting turned down, though, for online positions she was over-qualified for. She felt like she had failed and worried that there was just something wrong with her.

There was nothing wrong with her. The problem was that she was very smart, and she was trying to outsmart the situation using skills that actually don’t work in a harassment situation.

Here’s why: We are taught that being smart means getting an A++++ from our teacher. We are taught to communicate “professionally,” which usually means being grateful for the opportunities that come our way, even if we don’t want them.

We are never taught how to stop sexual harassment.

When we experience harassment from someone who is a colleague (or worse, a teacher or supervisor), we are so trained to maintain their professional goodwill, to worry about what they will say about us. We often look to them for approval (or at least we look to the other people they may talk to), instead of doing what we know will protect ourselves and our jobs.

The mistake Joan made was that she valued her employer’s comfort over her own career. She didn’t understand the protections she had under the law.

After just one conversation, Joan cried while told me she felt like she understood so much more about how to effectively apply for jobs and expect her employer to protect her. She went from believing she had to take herself out of the running for competitive positions for which she was qualified to understanding that she could create and expect safety in her work.

Being smart is amazing. But, we don’t expect ourselves to “just be smart enough” to know how to install electrical wiring. If we want to do that, we have to learn. The same is true with stopping sexual harassment. We just need the right person to teach us how to do it before we can expect to know how.


To protect identities, the story in this blog and all of my blogs are conglomerations of many stories, and the name is not the true name of anyone involved.

For more information about how to stop sexual harassment, get your free copy of my book Career Defense 101: How to Stop Sexual Harassment Without Quitting Your Job at

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