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What the Evolution of Hygiene Can Teach Us About Harassment

“You shouldn’t tell that story to people. It makes you sound weak,” a guy I knew in law school said. I had just told him how, when I lived in Ukraine, I visited my friend Vanessa in central Ukraine. We got on a bus alone, with only ourselves and the two bus drivers, late at night. We expected the bus drivers to take us back to her area of town. Instead, they drove out into the corn fields and tried to feel us up. They asked us if we liked to party, as Vanessa gathered keys and a broken antenna as weapons around her. We both looked out into the dark cornfields as the bus drove away from town, thinking we may have to fight these men or run out into the fields to save ourselves.

I spoke Russian, not Ukrainian, and so Vanessa yelled at the bus drivers for both of us.

Ultimately, they looked at the weapons, looked at each other, and the driver at the steering wheel broke into a sweat. They understood that we were not going to make things easy for them, and they drove us back into Vanessa’s town.

When I worked in trial court, just after law school, I realized that what happened to Vanessa and me in Ukraine was kidnapping. It had never occurred to me before.

I told the law school guy what I had realized, and he warned me that I would sound weak if I kept talking about that experience. I was so surprised! Do war veterans sound weak when they talk about escaping capture? Do super heroes look weak when they convince their enemies to drop their evil scheme? How could I sound weak because of a bus driver trying to feel me up? The only explanation I could come up with was that this guy believed I was kidnapped because of something I had done. He wanted to believe that he would have been too smart or strong to be kidnapped and that it only happened to me because of my weakness.

This makes sense, and cognitive bias research describes it as the fundamental attribution error and optimism bias. Basically, all of us think other people got where they are because of something about who they are, and we don’t want to believe bad things happen to good people (or that might mean that bad things will happen to us). For example, attorneys representing women who were injured by misdiagnoses of breast cancer receive the advice not to have any women on their jury because women will subconsciously be afraid that misdiagnosis could happen to them and not want to believe it actually happened to the woman bringing the claim.

I tend to think the stories where I escaped danger or overcame harassment are my most interesting, and so I am not inclined to stop telling them, but my law school classmate’s comment did give me some insight into why women so often talk in hushed tones and only to each other about their harassment and abuse experiences. Some people will misunderstand. The trouble with following that thinking is that it makes sure nothing changes. In order to really change harassment and end harassment in our own life, we need to be able to talk about it.

As I’m writing this, there has been a tidal wave of conversation about sexual harassment in the news. Of course, this type of wave has happened before and is often followed by what Susan Faludi identified as a backlash of cultural push against the growth that talking about harassment represents. A harasser gets elected to the Presidential office, women march and hashtag #MeToo, and then other women write letters defending flirting in the workplace. Cultural growth comes because of this push back and forth, but it is easy to feel torn and caught in the tide.

When my friends talked to me, hesitantly, about posting #MeToo on Facebook, many of them were worried that their harassment experience was not “real” harassment. Others were worried that men at work would approach them to talk about their post, intending to support them, and bring back flashbacks of sexual assault. I truly believe that what we say about our own harassment experiences is our own business, and there is no obligation to talk about any personal experience.

I also believe that each time we tell our own story it makes the problem real for the people around us and gives them motivation to actually press for change. On November 9, 2016, I woke up understanding that a man who openly admitted to sexual harassment would be taking over power in the United States. I realized that people I knew and loved had voted for him or not taken the issue seriously enough to cast a vote. I realized that if people I knew and loved were willing to do that, I was not loud enough about what it meant to me personally. Your experience and your story are important to the people around you. It is your choice, of course, whether talking about it is healthy for you, but I know sharing our honest stories changes the people around us.

Here’s my theory:

Discrimination is like snot. Every nose has snot, and every brain has discrimination. I like to picture what society was like when we first found out that germs kill people. I think that there were some early adopters in hand washing who totally got it. They cared about stopping disease, and it was worth it to them to wash their hands. Particularly brave early adapters may have even encouraged other people to wash their hands.

But, there have to have been people who thought they were smarter than science, right? There have to have been people who thought it was disrespectful to ask for hand washing. “Who does she think she is, telling me that my hands are dirty?” the traditionalist would think, “I washed them this year! I have two friends who wash their hands all the time! I’ll teach her about hand washing. My nose doesn’t even have snot.” Then they would blow their noses into their hands and wipe them on her food.

Hopefully, you see where I’m going with this. Hand washing revolutionized medicine, but I am positive that not everyone was happy about it. There may have even been those who denied that their particular noses carried germs.

That’s the place we’re in related to discrimination right now. All brains have discrimination. Discrimination is simply misattributing abilities or qualities to a person based on unrelated characteristics. For example, “People with yellow shirts are good at basketball” is a good example of discrimination because yellow shirts don’t create basketball skills, just like having certain reproductive organs don’t make a person better or worse at a work skill. The fact that our brains make these misattributions is science, and misattributions are called cognitive bias. Cognitive biases break down into smaller categories related to discrimination like group attribution error, the halo effect, and in-group bias. Many people are not ready to make a routine of washing their thinking, though.

Pointing out someone’s bias is like saying, “Hey, you have a booger in your nose.” Some people would rather not know about their boogers and would rather pretend their noses don’t have snot. Some people want to blame the patient who died from infection and call her weak, rather than calling the doctor out for failing to wash his hands before surgery. Sadly, along the same lines, some people would rather not acknowledge that their brains make misattributions.

In terms of sexism, the thinking error comes down to the simple thought, “Women and men deserve different benefits and burdens.” This thinking glitch is simple, but it plays out in horrific ways in society – from seeing the best and brightest among us being relegated to service jobs, low pay, and crushed dreams to rampant violence.

I think the quote attributed to Margaret Atwood is my favorite description of what I see as typical gender-based biases: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.”

This is the core of what we can do to create hygiene routines around gender discrimination. From a woman’s perspective, the quickest thing our brains go to is to try to solve this by thinking, “Men need to stop killing us and being so sensitive.” I don’t have a man’s perspective, but I imagine it to be something like, “Other men need to stop killing women, and women should respect me for being an ally.”

That is such disempowering thinking on both sides. Both women and men in those examples are saying that ending discrimination is in someone else’s hands – and someone they don’t respect at that. But it is very typical thinking (noses have snot), and don’t worry! If you have that thinking, I have good news. There is so much you can do to end discrimination just in your own mind, without all of the power to end discrimination being in the hands of murder-y men. Once you start working towards ending discrimination in your own mind, it is so much easier to help other people do the same.

The way you do it is by managing your own thinking. For women, it often seems really

important to maintain the thinking that men could kill them. This turns up in every part of our lives, from the workplace to the grocery store parking lot, to home. Gavin de Becker is a threat assessment and violence expert. In his brilliant book, The Gift of Fear, he explains that women tend to have a more developed intuitive sense of actual danger than men do, but often we either do not listen to it or we dull that sense by seeing danger everywhere.

For example, Athena, a lawyer who consulted with me about harassment from a male colleague, told me that every time the colleague raised his voice with her, her heart started pounding and she froze like an animal encountering a predator. She also had flashbacks to her father, who had been physically abusive to her and her siblings as a child. All of this was going on in her head, while her colleague was yelling to someone else about a disorganized file. His yelling was clearly not a physical threat, but her body responded like it was. And nobody would blame her. Based on her experience, her brain was being incredibly smart to be sensitive to the threat.

Men are one of the leading causes of death to women, and so it makes sense that we are afraid. But, at the same time, Athena was not actually in physical danger, and the helpful system her brain was using to protect her was not useful in that situation. Her brain thought she was being attacked by a giant bear, when really she was just witnessing a tantrum. Because her thinking shut her down, it was actually disempowering her instead of saving her.

I was talking about this thinking error with a male friend of mine, who is a particularly self-aware, thoughtful person. I told him the Margaret Atwood quote, and he said, “Oh, that is so spot on. Because for a man, being laughed at really is worse than death.”

My friend missed the point of the quote, but, at the same time, I think he hit on an important piece of this that really does unite women and men. Men may have very little evidence (that I can work out, anyway) that a woman laughing will kill him, but perhaps men often have sensitive shame triggers where women have sensitive fear triggers. As my friend explained, many men may quickly associate laughter with shame and rejection and think death preferable to a life of shame. So, I am in one corner believing that a man yelling or touching my shoulder without permission means my death is imminent. My friend is in another corner, believing that a woman’s laughter means something shameful about him that is worse than death. And both of us think the other’s thinking error is preferable.

If we needed to stop men from being violent and stop women from laughing in order to end discrimination, we would be screwed. Luckily, managing our own thinking and being deliberate about identifying our thinking errors is much easier than trying to cover the world in padding. The overarching rule for correcting a thinking error is this: Talk about it!

You don’t have to talk about it in a vindictive or mean way, but just putting light on the problem is a huge step. Tell people about your thinking errors and be open to talk about it if you are curious whether you see one in someone else. (Tell your friends when they have boogers hanging out of their noses, and blow your own nose when appropriate!) Thinking errors can’t survive the light. Thinking errors live in our unconscious brain, so they seem like observations, not deliberate choices. When we bring them forward to consciousness, the ones that don’t serve us wither.


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 Or you can purchase online via Amazon or Barnes & Noble (paperback $16.95, hardcover $24.95).

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