We’ve been hearing a lot about sexism in Silicon Valley lately. At the same time, it’s hard to miss the blatant examples of it in our politics, our entertainment and our news. As women, we often read the stories and shake our heads in quiet understanding, knowing that while it’s hard to endure sexist behavior, it can be even harder to stand up against it. Clearly, sexism contributes heavily to women’s workplace stress.
We could get into the long history of women’s rights, including the extensive battles for access to things like birth control, the inequalities of education and workplace dynamics, not to mention the fact that women weren’t even legally defined as “persons” until 1875. But I’m no historian and I’m pretty sure you didn’t come here for a history lesson. Regardless of our historical knowledge, here’s what we can say: As women, we’ve come a long way—but we still have a hell of a long way to go—and here’s a little proof.
Research tells us that if I gathered 100 women in a room, at least 30 of them would report being sexually harassed in the workplace. (Keep in mind, those are just the women willing to actually report that it happened.) Data shows us that 75 percent of sexual harassment victims continue to struggle in silence.
Throughout the past year, we’ve heard a lot of talk about sexism and harassment. Hearing phrases like “nasty woman” or “grab her by the pu@$y” put the sexist language and ideologies that women are up against, every single day, on full display. And while some phrases are simply ignorant and indefensible, the truth of the matter is, they still hold power.
As a woman in the workplace, it can be quite difficult to stand up against sexist comments for many reasons. We’re afraid of losing our jobs. Afraid of looking like an accuser. Afraid of jumping to conclusions and being wrong. Afraid of backlash. Afraid no one will listen. Afraid of being labeled. The list of fears is long and very real.
If sexism is a big contributor to workplace stress, then sexual harassment is definitely high on the top-ten list of extremely stressful situations. If you’re being sexually harassed, know that you don’t have to handle this on your own. There are many resources out there on how to navigate the legal landscape surrounding sexual harassment (start here). And if you’re experiencing harassment, I definitely encourage you to take action to address it.
According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Although the [sexual harassment] law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).”
Sexism often presents as “simple teasing, offhand comments or isolated incidents,” and when ignored or excused, it has the potential to grow into full-fledged harassment. This is the reason we can’t ignore it when it happens.
But how do we call out sexism—especially when it feels like we’re putting everything on the line?
1. Calm down before you speak or take action.
It’s not that you don’t have a right to feel the way you feel after a sexist comment or belittling remark. It’s simply that roiling emotions don’t contribute to good choices. You’ll hear me say this again and again: there is nothing that won’t go better if you’re calm when you do it. And there’s nothing that won’t go worse if you’re triggered.
Emotions in motion distort your perception of reality, and the main thing they tend to obscure is your ability to see your choices clearly. Emotions are like waves – they escalate, then subside with the passage of time. If your wave is cresting at full tsunami, it’s obviously not the time to have a discussion with your abuser. So, before you launch into a full-blown verbal counterattack, take the time you need to settle down; then examine your best options for addressing the problem. When you’ve had a chance to calm down, you’ll be far better equipped to see which choices are clearly in your long-term best interests. And that doing nothing is not one of them.
2. Context is vital
If you look at the definition of sexual harassment provided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, you’ll see that what you’re really being asked to look at is the context. And while context never excuses harassment, it does provide a lens for accurately determining if what you’re experiencing is truly harassment or if it’s just someone being clueless and insensitive.
For example, if you’re in a meeting and someone is using foul language and sexual terms, that may be offensive, rude and inappropriate, but it’s not strictly illegal. However, if that same person looks at you and suggests that you provide him with a sexual favor or makes another derogatory comment or behavior towards you, this is definitely harassment because it creates a hostile and offensive work environment. Put this behavior on repeat, day in and day out, and you’ve got a bona fide case of sexual harassment.
If you’re a woman who’s spent any time in the public sphere, you know full well that something doesn’t have to “legally” qualify as harassment for it to make your life a living hell. And this is where I want to focus right now.Something doesn't have to 'legally' qualify as harassment for it to make life living hell. Click To Tweet
Sexism may be unethical, unacceptable and even immoral, but that doesn’t necessarily make it illegal. When someone is displaying sexist behavior of the type not recognized as unacceptable by the courts, the reality is that it’s up to you to set very clear boundaries about what’s acceptable to you. Then you’ll need to have the difficult conversation.
Keep in mind, the more emotional you are, the higher the possibility that your emotions will be the focus. On the other hand, the more neutral you can be, the easier it will be to keep the focus where it belongs: on the abusive behavior that needs to stop.
3. Speak. Pause. Clarify.
“Hey, (insert name). Do you recall saying (or doing) _________________? “
Instead of starting the conversation as the accuser, with this kind of approach, you’re going into the situation as neutral as possible.
You may recall that I’ve said stress is actually neutral—it’s our reaction to it that gives it power to destroy our health and happiness. So, by creating a neutral foundation for the discussion, you are helping to create an environment where honest reflection and helpful dialogue can rise to the surface. Ask the question, and then pause. Don’t give in to the pressure to fill the silence. Instead, allow your silence to make room for the other party to think, reflect and answer.
Once you’ve spoken and provided room for the other party to respond, you may need to provide clarity and direction if you don’t get the response you need (or if you’re not getting a response at all). If the other party doesn’t recognize the sexist behavior and won’t provide reassurance that this won’t happen again, then it’s up to you to state exactly what you want.
Here’s my biggest tip: Don’t complicate your message. The more words you use, the more likely those words will get lost in translation.
Instead, speak clearly and concisely, saying something like, “I need your assurance that you won’t make comments to me like that again.” And depending on this person’s response, you may have to follow up with what you will do if it does happen again (and only state what you know you’ll actually be willing to carry out if it does happen again). You may say something like, “I will be forced to notify the Personnel Director.”
The point here is that you are focused and specific about the behavior you want stopped.
Remember, no matter you end up doing or not doing, you can’t ever control someone else’s response. You may want the other party to feel immediately remorseful, but the reality is that they’ll likely feel taken off guard, defensive or worse. But remember, your goal is to stop the behavior, and you’ll do that most effectively when you:
Keep it simple.
Keep it fact-based.
And keep your emotions out of it!
Then (and only then) can you set clear boundaries and protect your long-term best interests.
4. Write it down
Once you’ve done the initial work, you want to be sure you keep an accurate, detailed record of the conversation. Why? Because nearly every example of blatant sexual harassment we’ve seen emerge over the last 25 years has risen out of ignoring subtle sexist behavior.Most examples of blatant sexual harassment result from ignoring subtle sexist behavior. Click To Tweet
As an insurance policy, keep detailed records of all dates, times, locations, and conversations you’ve had with the other party that were inappropriate (and even your conversations with others in your department or company about these events). This way, if the offensive behavior eventually evolves into full-fledged harassment, you’ll have documentation to back you up.
5. Know that this will be very uncomfortable
Confronting difficult situations is rarely easy for any of us—especially when we feel like our dignity has been jeopardized. The truth is, the only person who can have true dominion over your emotions is YOU.
One of the simplest ways to temper your reactions to stressful situations is to relax tension in your body while you focus on your breathing. This gives your mind something productive to do while you’re carrying out your plan to address the problem. This mindfulness practice—you’ll hear me refer to as the practice of “posture, breath and mind”—has been proven in studies to regulate your emotions and give you a stronger sense of self-empowerment.
So, no matter where you are in the cycle of addressing the problem of sexism and sexual harassment, never lose sight of the fact that calming your emotions and quieting your mind enables you to remain in the best position to set a firm boundary in a calm and constructive way.
Take good care : )
What are your experiences with sexism in the workplace? How have you handled those situations and what would you do differently if you could go back and handle it all over again?