Early in my legal career, I interviewed for an advocacy position. In one of the interviews, I was at lunch with an older male executive in the company, when suddenly it seemed like I was on a date. I couldn’t tell you what happened to change the atmosphere, but it was palpable. I remember the exact moment it happened, and the way the executive changed his posture and leaned forward slightly, as I leaned back. I went to a group interview later that week, and the same executive escorted me around, gentlemanly, with his hand on my low back. I was very uncomfortable. He told me that they were not hiring, but if they found someone “particularly attractive” they might consider opening a position. I got the position.
My supervisor was a woman, and, before I started, I decided to ask her advice about how to set good boundaries with the creepy executive. I told her nothing had become inappropriate, but I thought it might become inappropriate, so I wanted to make sure it was clear that I was at work to do my job and to be recognized for my work.
My supervisor said, “I’m really surprised to hear that because the last person in this position worked really closely with him, she never said anything, and she’s really pretty.”
This devolved into a mortifying conversation about whether I am pretty. The other piece of advice she gave me was that our work is just really sexist and we have to deal with it. She did not have the skills or tools to teach me what I needed, and, like many women, she had done what she could to survive and be successful without them.
When I started work, the creepy executive quickly began to give me back rubs, rub my arms and shoulders, lean his entire body against me, criticize my clothing, and reprimand me for talking when (I found out later) he was dramatically pausing during stories. I had no idea what to do. I did not want to talk to my supervisor again because I did not want to have a conversation about whether I was pretty enough to be harassed. I wanted strategies that worked.
I decided that it was not really happening and I was just so nervous in this job and anxious about doing good work that I was over-reacting. I decided that I could change my clothes and maybe that would make the job easier. I gained 40 pounds.
I was a lawyer, I thought. I should know how to handle myself. What was wrong with me that I did not deserve his respect? Maybe I just didn’t belong in the law.
I was constantly afraid. I felt fear throughout the day. I wanted to leave the job, but that would mean giving up my career. My mentors didn’t know what was going on, but told me to stick out my job even though I was unhappy and things would get better. I started experiencing suicidal thoughts, which I thought I had overcome years before. I knew I needed to make a change, and I did.
Through my legal research, the thought management work I was trained in, and learning through my own experiences, I developed a career defense training that I have tested and tried with myself and my clients. Using the strategies in my training, I was able to have a conciliatory conversation with the creepy executive, in which he apologized and committed to change. He followed through with that change, we worked together for years after, and I left on good terms with that organization. I defended my career, using careful, deliberate strategies.
As is typical in the law, I have been called an assistant (and I have been told that John, the real assistant, must actually be an associate), criticized for my speech pattern (I talked too collaboratively), clothes (I exposed my shoulders), and I have constantly said too much or too little. I heard from older women attorneys that this is just the way the law is. It’s sexist, but, like Leslie Morgan Steiner said, we are strong women, working with very troubled men.
Even today, I was arguing with a judge about a rule change, and I was explaining to her that if that rule had been in place years ago, people would not have been able to speak out about the sex abuse perpetrated by the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church. She said, “That argument is emotional, so it’s not useful. We help people by procedures in the courts, and that’s what will bring justice.” She cared about my argument, herself, but she believed that the other people in the room (men) would not. I understand her argument. I understand where the older women, who have helped me so much and paved the way for me, come from in managing the troubled men around them. But, it is time for us to overcome the thinking errors that allow harassment to continue.
Using the strategies I'm going to give you in these next couple of weeks, I have seen clients defend their careers by ending harassment within their jobs or by leaving to go on to something better – rather than quitting before it is the best solution for them. In each instance, they have created change that empowers them and contributes to ending sexual harassment in our culture.
The strategies are not easy, but they work to make real change and to show you how powerful you really are.
This is a selection from Career Defense 101: How to Stop Sexual Harassment Without Quitting Your Job. For a free copy of the book, visit www.CareerDefense101.com. Or you can purchase online via Amazon or Barnes & Noble (paperback $16.95, hardcover $24.95).