In the last few months there has been a tremendous worldwide movement revealing the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. The “Me too” movement was in the news, in social media, in newspapers, in hundreds of television discussions and this gave the opportunity to discuss openly what everybody already knew: that women are very often victims of the predatory behaviors of men.
We are watching women sharing their unpleasant experiences of being offended or even attacked by their bosses without the possibility to protect (or knowing how to protect) themselves from their powerful boss.
This phenomenon is not new; it is as old as the human race and has always been happening in different shapes or forms in every society. Until recently, even in the Western civilized countries, women were legally considered inferior to men - for example, they didn’t have the right to vote – therefore, a man could offend “an inferior” without any consequences; it was a “natural” behavior that the society could accept.
Fortunately for us women things have changed for the better and we are considered equal citizens to men and have the same rights, at least legally. But what really happens in everyday life? This idea about “natural” mannish behavior still exists in the minds of both men and women, which makes men consider that behavior acceptable and women consider it unpleasant but likely to happen. It is considered “natural mannish behavior” for men to be more “assertive” when flirting and showing interest in women. The problem is that “assertive” is really aggressive or is perceived as aggressive in different circumstances and contexts.
Yes, it happened to Me Too!
At this point I would like to share my personal experience about eight years ago.
The “Me too” movement is complex, and in some cases, we rationalize the behaviors as ok until they’re not ok. I share a personal experience from eight years ago, and whilst speaking to close friends about how to best handle the situation, only after introspection and self-coaching could I find how to counter unwanted advances and attention. At the end of the piece I share questions that, with hindsight, guided me through it. It takes courage and strength, it’s messy, yet there is a silver lining at the end when you learn how to take back control. Also, as I share my experiences, I appreciate that this is just one of the many ways this can be dealt with, and I encourage you to share yours to continue what’s been started.
I was employed by a very large organization and reporting to the General Manager of that Division. He had hired me to work with him on various projects and since the beginning of our cooperation I could feel that there was something strange in the atmosphere. He would keep me at his office for hours after everybody else had left talking about anything but work. At the beginning I was puzzled because I couldn’t understand his intentions and couldn’t explain why he would spend so much time with me having social conversations instead of working productively!
At some stage he started making advances and then I understood why he was wasting so much time with me talking nonsense instead of business. I was surprised and a bit shocked because I wasn’t expecting that or… I thought I wasn’t expecting that.
The situation was unpleasant and difficult because my resistance affected my cooperation with him. Gradually he started blocking my projects and isolating me. My career in the organization was doomed.
I started asking myself why this was happening and what I could do. In that organisation it was impossible to speak up because there was no way to prove what was happening. I discussed about this with friends and a lawyer and they all said that unless I can prove it, it is better to find another job. The reality was that I needed the job and couldn’t afford to be unemployed in a market with over 20% unemployment.
There is something important here though: my personal introspection disclosed that deep down I was feeling flattered to spend time with that good looking, well-educated, successful guy who happened to my manager. Although I resisted, my behavior “allowed” this to happen. Initially, I was shocked, then scared and always polite because my upbringing dictated that I should always be polite to my superiors.
That aha moment was a big revelation! I realized that if I changed my behavior and started being a really strong person that doesn’t need to feel flattered and doesn’t need to look polite if the other person breaks the rules, then I could stop the harassment immediately. And I did.
New thinking new attitude
When I knew that I didn’t need flattery and didn’t have to be polite just because he was my manger, my attitude changed. It didn’t stay at his office for social conversation anymore and stopped answering any questions not related to work; my body posture changed and even my tone of voice sounded harder because I wasn’t scared anymore. I was there as a professional. That was a conscious, clear and solid image. Eventually he stopped because he couldn’t shock me or scare me anymore.
I didn’t save my career though and some months later I resigned … Stronger, more confident and with an important lesson.
Be the strong Queen not the fragile Princess!
We cannot stop a person from being aggressive but we can always protect ourselves and be proactive in order to prevent harassment at least to a degree. My experience taught me that we should be strong and clear about our attitude and about the messages we give in the environment.
Check the environment
When you start working in an organization check what is happening in the culture; is this behavior usual? Allowed? Unacceptable? Are there rules and processes that will support you if such an incident happens? Who could you report that to?
Check behaviors: identify possible risks and threats from specific people and be strictly professional with them. Being friendly could be risky with people who are used to break the rules..
Set a clear goal about your image
Who are you in this environment? Define what messages you want your behavior to pass in your environment. Be clear and solid. Be professional in all aspects. You are there to do a job; if you are too friendly and open some people might misunderstand it.
Lack of self-esteem, low self-confidence, need for flattery might give the wrong message to aggressive people who are prone to harass women.
Be sure about yourself. Be strong.
You may feel flattered by the handsome manager who talks to you nicely but you don’t to feel flattered! You are strong enough to feel confident without that.
Know what you want and how you want to relate to your colleagues and managers. If you feel strong your attitude will radiate that.
If something feels strange, it probably is. If you feel that someone’s behavior makes you feel awkward, think about it and keep a distance until you understand their intentions.
If there is any indication of harassment react. Don’t accept it.
Report them to the HR department or to the responsible person in the organization. Ask a lawyer, discuss it with your family and friends and take advice. Think of your options.
And most importantly: Don’t feel vulnerable and offended. Don’t be fragile. Speak up. Be strong and take action.
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