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You Are Here*: Labeling the Problem In Your Workplace Culture

I remember that when the harassment I was experiencing was at its most extreme, I lost all ability to even appreciate a warm house on a rainy day. My entire body was consumed with fear about harassment and despair about who I was and what I deserved. I was afraid all the time. Understanding the law and how it applied to my situation was no help in reducing my fear – instead, it added a level of pressure and confusion because it is impossible to get a straight answer about how the law applies. I was afraid I would do something wrong and ruin any legal claim I might have and I was afraid a legal claim would ruin my career. I wanted to talk about what I was experiencing, but I thought it made people too uncomfortable and they couldn’t help me anyway.

I know you are strong enough to experience the fear and stress you are under right now, but I also know your experience does not have to stay as stressful and terrifying as it is now. You can feel better and you can deal with harassment in the way that is right for you, no matter how the law applies. It can feel very disempowering to hear about how narrow the legal prohibitions against discrimination and harassment are and how little the law will do to protect you when you are being harassed.

It can be easy to give up at that point. Every year, women lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in their careers because the law doesn’t protect them from harassment and they don’t know what to do next. Those women avoid promotions, take demotions, or leave their jobs for lower paying jobs to get away from their harassers. Polling shows that one in five women has left a career because of harassment.

And no one would blame them. You never need to put up with harassment. You do not owe that to yourself or to anyone else. Leaving is always an option. But, often if you quit, you lose legal protection, and also, you miss out on a huge opportunity to understand your life and grow in it.

Particularly where kids are involved, moms often look at this as an excruciating choice between the frying pan and the fire. Before they come to me, my clients often think their only choices are between staying in an abusive job (and feeding their children) or leaving (and letting their children starve or sending them to live with grandma). I want better than that for you, and your kids definitely deserve better. The truth is that there are other options. So how do you figure out the reality of what you should do?

First, be very clear about what the harassing behavior is. We have to identify the problem behavior. Be very specific. What was said? What was done?

If you want to protect yourself or preserve a legal claim, reflect on whether your harassment is based on your race, gender, religion, or another protected characteristic (check with an attorney in your state to find out what characteristics are protected). What I see most commonly with my clients is that they know they are being targeted because they are women, but they would rather point to any other reason when they’re talking about it. They would rather say, “He was mad that I paid for his lunch” than “He hates women and tries to put them in their place.”

I think this happens because we think it is “bad” or somehow morally wrong, rather than just incorrect, for people to demonstrate sexism. Then, we think that if we are identifying sexism, it’s going to look judgmental. This creates the really unhelpful situation where we are inaccurately talking about sexism in a way that makes sure it will never change.

The motivation for the harassment is separate from identifying the problem behavior, but still important. Problem behavior is something like, “He touched my shoulder” or “He said, ‘Stop talking.’” The motivation is something like, “I think he is threatened by women because he only talks to women that way,” or “I think he’s hangry because he acts like that when he hasn’t had lunch.”Sexism is prohibited by the law. Hangriness is not prohibited by the law. So, after you have identified the problem behavior, it is somewhat important to figure out what you think is motivating the problem behavior and why you think that. Our brains often signal suspicion when we think behavior is sexist, but sometimes it also creates a huge barrier against identifying that motivation.

For example, I consulted with a top manager for a research non-profit, who was being laid off. Her research line was being cut, and she was suspicious that it was because she was a woman. When I first asked her why she thought that, she couldn’t put her finger on it, and she mentioned that maybe she was just being overly sensitive.

I say to women in those situations that when we think something is sexist, there is usually a good reason if we can let ourselves be curious about it and pull the reason out of our memory. Once we have done that, we can address it. If we let it remain a suspicion in our unconscious, we can’t do anything about it.

After I gave her some space to think about why, she had many reasons. She explained that she was on a project a year earlier, and she was the only one who was removed from the project. She was also the only woman on the project. The man who organized the project, the head of their non- profit, was notoriously sexist, but no one would complain about it because they were afraid for their jobs. She gave me other examples of sexism women talked about behind his back. She had never raised any issues regarding sexism, but now her research line was the only one being cut. It seemed like retribution for the ways she had questioned him when they worked on the project. Those examples were not at the forefront of her memory because she was not looking for sexism in her job. But, she was able to retrieve them when she took the time to be curious.

I worked with a lawyer recently who was questioned in an investigation regarding sexism in her firm. She explained to me that she thought the male partners’ attitude to women was not “sexist,” but was “authoritarian,” which she also believed was a problem.

The important thing to know is that it is not illegal to be authoritarian, hangry, or even cruel, but it is illegal to be sexist in a work environment. Most people don’t care if someone was authoritarian or even mean to you. I’m sorry to say that, but they don’t. On the other hand, as a society, we have come more and more to recognize that targeting people based on immutable characteristics is stupid and unhelpful, so we’re doing slightly more to change that.

Authoritarianism and bad leadership are probably a problem in any sexist environment you are in, but if you want your environment to change, you need to be really deliberate about what you want to change. It is also most effective to make change when you are willing to be accurate and use the tools available to you (like the law) in your favor. If you want to encourage your harasser to grow in his leadership skills, that might be worth it to you, and there are many great books about leadership. Because you are reading this, I think you want your harasser to stop targeting you as a woman. If you implement the strategies I discuss here and in my book Career Defense 101, one of the side effects may be that your harasser is forced to have better leadership skills and be accountable for his crappy leadership skills, but that is not the purpose of any of these strategies.

If you are trying to address leadership skills in the same conversation where you are addressing sexual harassment, your harasser is not going to get it. If you are telling someone else (police, a reporting agency, or even your friend) about bad leadership skills in the same conversation where you want to report sexual harassment, they are going to think you and your harasser just have a personality conflict that you can deal with yourselves.

No one wants to get involved in a personality conflict. Some people are required to respond to sexual harassment.

Be really clear in your own mind whether what you are experiencing is based in sexism or based in something else. It may be for you that, like the lawyer I was working with, you genuinely believe your environment is not sexist, but is authoritarian. Just knowing that could be helpful in understanding what you can do to effectively make change. Sometimes, it is even a relief to understand that a bad leader is mean to everyone, not just women. Whatever your results are, it is important to take some time and be curious about the exact problem behavior, what you believe motivates it, and why you believe that.

When we are uncomfortable about identifying sexism and we are more comfortable staying in that unconscious suspicious place, it is almost always because of extreme thoughts we have about sexism. What I typically see is that those thoughts are something like a combination of, “Maybe I do actually deserve disrespect,” “I don’t want to be a victim,” and “If I say anything about this, it will ruin his life.”

We can usually see that those thoughts are nonsense when they’re written down, and we would not say them to anyone else, but they are very, very typical. Our brain tries to find any other reason for what we’re experiencing because of our thoughts around what it would mean to experience sexism.

But, we can’t do anything to change something that we’re not willing to even consider. There is nothing we can do to overcome sexism in our lives if we’re not willing to acknowledge it exists.

Not all meanness we experience is based in sexism, but when we close our eyes to the sexism around us, it leaves us powerless victims to that very sexism.

So, in this first step, we identify the problem behavior and what we think is motivating it. This step is like when you go to the mall, and you know you need to go to Banana Republic, so you walk up to the sign that shows the map of the store. The map shows the star that says “You Are Here.” You need to find the “You Are Here” star before you can figure out how to get to Banana. Being clear on the harassment you are experiencing and whether it is based in discrimination is finding that star. Once you know where you are, it will be much easier to map out how to get where you want to go.


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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