Pulling the "Push Only" Door

“The only other advice I have is that things are really sexist, and we just have to deal with it.”

Early in my legal career, this was what I heard when I approached another employment attorney about sexual harassment I was experiencing. At the time, I was trying to take preventative steps before the harassment got too bad because I loved the work I was doing. I asked this lawyer how to set clear boundaries in my job with a much older man who seemed interested in me. I was so discouraged by the advice to “just deal with it” that I stopped talking about my experience as it got worse and worse over the course of a year.

Every time my boss would rub my shoulders or lean his body against mine, I would experience a complete freeze and dissociation. I found myself unable to say anything, even though I had never been someone to back down from defending myself. I had experienced harassment in the past and had always been able to stop it and stand up for myself. I knew I was smart and tough, but somehow this was different than what I had experienced in the past. I was constantly holding my breath and felt afraid all the time.

One of the reasons this experience was different was that I was in my dream job. I was representing women in sexual harassment lawsuits . . . while I was being sexually harassed myself. I was saying to women on the phone what I had been instructed to say (“Call us back if you get fired, but otherwise there’s not much the law can do to protect you while you’re still working”), and at the same time, I was experiencing the ramifications of that kind of advice myself. In law firms that represent employees, the advice to “call us back if you get fired” is often spoken over and over again, no matter how painful it is for the attorney or the employee. This is because the law only addresses harassment and discrimination under narrow circumstances and firing an employee for a discriminatory reason tends to be the simplest to identify. When lawyers file lawsuits in other situations they can be expensive for clients and have no guaranteed win. In these situations, lawyers are turning employees away in many senses to protect them rather than giving them false expectations, but that doesn’t make it easier.

I know how this feels on both sides: Terrible. When someone seeks you out as a resource of support in a vulnerable position, it feels terrible to tu