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The Tough Girl Trap

Julie was raised to be a tough girl. She could run a forklift better than any man in her workplace. She knew how to hunt, fish, and defend herself in a fight. She also loved a good mani-pedi – because being tough didn’t take away from being feminine.

Julie worked with all men in a construction industry. She fought her way to each promotion she got by working twice as hard as the men around her, but it was worth it to her to know she proved herself.

The problem was her general manager was sexually harassing her. He criticized her body to customers, went through her phone when she wasn’t looking, and even snapped her bra, among other things. Julie initially thought she was “tough enough” to handle the harassment. She looked at it almost like a hazing that she could make it through and get to the other side.

The problem is that sexual harassment is not hazing. With hazing, the idea is that once we prove ourselves, the hazing ends. When we don’t identify sexual harassment and do something about it, it only gets worse.

By thinking of herself as “tough enough” to handle the sexual harassment, Julie forced herself to endure years and years of her manager’s inappropriate behavior.

The tough girl trap is one way that women are taught early on to work against ourselves and allow abuses of power to continue. Because we buy into the belief that we shouldn’t be “whiners,” and we shouldn’t complain, we actually give power to harassers. Because we are “tough enough” we leave it to the next generation of women to stop the harassment.

Now, when Julie saw another woman, working under her, start to experience harassment from the general manager, all of a sudden Julie saw it differently. She realized that she would never expect another woman to tolerate harassing behavior just to show she was tough enough to keep her job. She did not expect other women to prove themselves – she already knew they were tough enough – and she expected more for them from her workplace.

We often have a cruel narrative running through our minds (and it is often reinforced by our outside world, especially employers) that we have to prove we’re tough enough to keep a good job. Is that the narrative we want to keep telling to the little girls coming after us? Do we want to require them to submit to sexual harassment in order to keep their jobs?

If not, the change needs to start with us. Yes, we are tough. Every woman I have worked with on a sexual harassment issue has been incredibly strong. That goes without saying. Tolerating harassing behavior does not make us more or less tough, it just encourages that behavior.


For a free copy of my book Career Defense 101: How to Stop Sexual Harassment Without Quitting Your Job go to

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