I was consulting with a lawyer whose supervising attorney was being a tyrant to her because she was a woman. It was one of those situations where you just know he would not have talked to a man the way he was talking to her, but he wasn’t outright calling her “baby doll” or anything like that. Instead, he was questioning every answer she gave him, criticizing her for lacking confidence, and saying behind her back that he wasn’t sure why but she just wasn’t ready for major responsibility.
We talked one day when she was particularly upset and she was thinking about quitting her job. She said she didn’t need to continue to take someone undermining her at every turn.
(As I’m telling you this story, I realize that I’m actually mixing up three different stories with different clients because I have been having this conversation so often recently.)
What she said was completely true. She did not need to continue to tolerate anything she didn’t like. But, the issue I take with this thinking, as my clients’ advocate, is that quitting almost always punishes the woman experiencing the harassment and rewards the man doing the harassing. I understand that my client’s supervising attorney had invested money in her by hiring her, but losing that investment is not nearly as impactful to him as her losing her source of income.
Quitting makes it much, much more difficult to bring a legal claim for harassment because the law expects us to do the heavy lifting of ending discrimination, and it only steps in when that’s not possible. There are different standards for a legal claim if a woman quits because of harassment than if she gets fired.
Quitting says, “Okay, you own this mountain, so I’ll back down and go find a different mountain.” It gives ground and space to someone as a reward for their bad behavior. Usually, it is us giving up space and letting a man take that space over. Defending our careers from sexual harassment means standing in our space and claiming it for ourselves, despite someone else having bad behavior. It is not easy, but it is worth it.
Don’t get me wrong, if you are in physical danger, call 911, leave, and do whatever you need to do to keep yourself safe. It is much more common with my clients, though, that they want their jobs, they are excellent at their jobs, and they are not in physical danger.
Their brains, though, are telling them that they are about to be eaten by a tiger. Our brains, as we discussed before, have not yet evolved to know the difference between our supervising attorney, or our business competitor, our CEO, or some guy on the internet throwing a tantrum and a giant tiger attack. This just means that you have to process your brain’s immediate reaction that you’re going to die before you can make a deliberate decision about what the consequence will be for tantrum behavior next time.
And there will be a next time. If you are working with a giant toddler today, he will still be a giant toddler tomorrow. Physics exists. Often, part of a harassing or abusive experience is that the harasser seems to change day-to-day, and some days he will be really encouraging and nice. Then, it feels like the rug is pulled out from under you on the day he returns to throwing tantrums.
Here’s the thing: I am a jerk sometimes. I am not a particularly thoughtful person, and my best friend describes that I don’t mean to say arrogant things, I’m just an Aries and it’s my nature. She’s totally right, and also, I think sometimes it’s hilarious when I’m sarcastic or contrary. I like that about me. Tomorrow, I might listen to a podcast that really hits me about being a better listener and self-reflect about how I want to build more connection and really understand the people around me without attachment to outcome. So, tomorrow, I might ask particularly thoughtful questions and really take to heart what people say to me.
I am still going to go back to being sarcastic and contrary because I think it’s hilarious. But, I am not going to punch you in the face. Honestly, I’m probably not going to punch you in the face even if I’m in physical danger because it just freaks me out. Sarcastic and contrary is on the acceptable side of the line for me, punching you in the face is on the unacceptable side of the line.
People do not change their understanding of what falls on the acceptable and unacceptable sides of the line overnight. In order to change that, people have to practice change and have a compelling reason to practice change. Like with making your own change from saying yes to your harasser to saying yes to yourself and the people you love, it takes a compelling reason for your harasser to change. Your discomfort may not even register on his radar, and it probably is not compelling enough to him to motivate his change. Until you or someone else creates a compelling reason for him to change, your harasser may say one day that he completely understands his behavior was unacceptable, and then turn around and do the same thing again a month later. This is normal and expected. He is going to still be him tomorrow and the next day. Making more space for his harassment gives him a compelling reason to keep harassing.
It is not your job to change him, even if he has kids and you’re worried about how his behavior will affect his kids. Your job is to take care of yourself, protect yourself, and create the exact, ideal life you want. You standing your ground and setting consequences may also help his kids, but getting into their business about it will only distract you from setting consequences. Harassment will still exist even if you become perfect at defending your career against it, but if it comes into your space, there are consequences.
I was consulting with a woman who works for a major investment banking company in a department made up almost exclusively of men. She had multiple inappropriate experiences at work, but she was also struggling with dating because of more than one experience where a man had physically intimidated or hurt her. She described her insight saying, “What if I just always expect that if I am on a date with a man I don’t know, he could try to force me to do something I don’t want to do, and then I just plan ahead of time how I will respond to take care of myself?” She realized that part of what would happen in these situations for her was that she was so shocked in the moment that someone would be that inappropriate that she had a delayed response in protecting herself. She had trained in mixed martial arts and jujitsu, and so her ability to take care of herself was not a problem. Her problem was that she did not have a plan ahead of time, so it took her time to even acknowledge the inappropriate behavior.
Again, that is not to say at all that she was responsible for the behavior of the men. Yes, parents should train boys to be respectful more than they train girls to avoid walking at night. But, we already have generations of men who were not trained that way, and they need consequences as much as we need protection.
You already know the behavior that your harasser is willing to engage in. You know the line he is willing to cross. Assume he is going to keep being him. Lundy Bancroft goes into this idea in more detail in Why Does He Do That?, describing that people often blame alcohol, drugs, or mental illness for abusive behavior in men. Really, he explains, there are alcoholics, drug addicts, and mentally ill men who are not willing to hit people or engage in other cruelty. So, the line a person draws is not caused by substances or mental illness. A person chooses where that line is, and then substances or mental illness may make that behavior more extreme on the side of the line the person finds acceptable.
Bancroft runs a program for men convicted of violence against women. One example Bancroft gives of his argument that abusers have a line they draw, whether or not substances or mental illness is involved, relates to the men in his program who describe that they “lost control” and started hitting someone. Bancroft asks them, “Why didn’t you kill her?” And the men respond, “Oh, I would never do that!” But, if they truly “lost control,” there is nothing they would be able to do to prevent themselves from murder.
Because the behavior we are talking about often seems so charged, sometimes I explain it this way. Imagine, you come across a bunny rabbit, and you really want it to stop hopping and walk on its hind legs like a person. You think it’s outrageous for anything to do so much hopping, when for you walking is very natural and much more dignified. So, you do everything you can think of to get the rabbit to stop hopping. You say “yes” to everything it asks of you; you respond to its every call morning and night; you sometimes get angry and yell at it or cry and demand an explanation; you do everything you can to change your behavior to get it to stop hopping. Still, the bunny rabbit hops.
The point I want to get across is obviously not that harassment is like a bunny rabbit hopping, but that someone’s harassing behavior belongs to that person and is about him, not about you. If he is willing to do it, especially if he is willing to do it more than once, that means it is as natural, normal, and acceptable to him as hopping is to a bunny rabbit. You changing your behavior, sacrificing anything about yourself, making yourself smaller, or being unhappy is not going to change that because it is about him, not about you.
The truth is that people are in control of themselves when they are harassing or abusive. There are lines they are willing to cross, and lines they will not cross. Especially when they face no real consequences for their behavior (sometimes even when they do face consequences for their behavior), they don’t see any reason to change. When we make ourselves smaller in response to harassment, it rewards the bad behavior.
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).