How to talk about the awkward topic of sexual harassment and discrimination
This post has been bumping around inside my head for a long time now. I haven’t written it before because no matter how outspoken you are about feminism and inappropriate behaviors in the workplace, writing about a personal experience that can potentially be tracked is a terrifying experience. I doubt there’s a woman who has spoken up — within a company or publicly — who hasn’t feared retribution, firing, doxxing, blacklisting.
But if we don’t speak up, how do we make the change?
So, here’s a story about sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. It’s not the worst story that you’ll ever read, which is why I think it’s important to write it. Because none of this behavior is ever acceptable and when it happens, action should always be taken.
Recently*, I’ve witnessed workplace sexual harassment and discrimination. When it began, I relayed the first incident to a small group of friends with a derisive and regrettable laugh, retelling the incident as a pseudo-joke. When I looked up and saw universal slack-jawed stares, I was unnerved. This isn’t how this usually goes, my brain screamed. Usually people laugh, maybe tell their own fucked up stories, and then we go on eating dinner.
Instead, my friends asked my when the chap was getting fired, because the incident would be immediately actionable at the companies they worked at (think large corporations, multinationals, banks, the like.)
I’d already been planning on reporting the incident to my manager when I returned from work (as the first instance of my personal journey of harassment at this company happened on a business trip) but after witnessing the dumbfounded shock of my peers that the man I spoke of had not already been reprimanded or fired (since the incident happened among people very senior in the company — in fact, I was the most junior person there) I realized that I needed to treat the incident with more gravity.
I’ve written many thousands of words about issues women face when they work in tech, both amongst their customers and within their own companies. And yet, this breadth of personal experience being harassed, demeaned, and discriminated against is a double-edged sword: I’m far more aware of what this bad behavior looks like when it happens and I’m also desensitized to it. I spent my younger years, when I had less power and money, finding ways to cope with what was happening to me and around me because I was powerless to do anything about it. When I became sufficiently senior, and financially secure, I vowed to never be complacent about this behavior. I promised that I would make noise when it happened to me or when I saw it happening to others and I would keep making noise until meaningful change happened. And yet, somehow, I have lived long enough in this world to believe that no matter what I report, or how I report it, harassment and discrimination I see or experience will likely never be dealt with or stopped. In my personal case, I certainly never considered the fact something should already have happened to this man who was harassing me before I raised a red flag (he had a reputation. I’d actually heard of his reputation on the business trip before my own personal incident took place.)
Considering the reactions of my non-tech friends when listening to my tale, I had to reassess the dangers of my numbness to the problem. I fight the fight, and it feels like digging in wet sand — and in many ways, in my industry (and many others) it still is that futile. But it’s not that way everywhere — and we’re at a turning point where people are paying attention. I needed to throw all my weight behind trying to enact actual change, even if it was only in my own small, personal corner of the world.
Over the weeks, incidents continued to happen, both personally to me and to other female colleagues in my presence. Every time, I reported what happened. Every time, I felt awkward and nauseous giving my report. Every time I logged the incidents in my personal files, I felt anger and humiliation. Every time I sent an email to a superior to document what was going on, I wondered whether anyone realized the paper trail I was making — and if they did, how the hell they were still sweeping it all under the rug.
To be clear, I’m not talking about rape or molestation. I’m talking about jokes and demeaning comments about women’s breasts, about their lack of confidence, about demeaning stereotypes of women, about literally yelling at, talking over, and condescending to women so they could not do their work, about giving work that should go to women to men, even though the women’s job description entitles them to that work and the men are less qualified and giving this work to someone other than the women directly impacts her compensation. I’m talking about the everyday harassment and discrimination most women have personally experienced or witnessed first hand. The kind of harassment and discrimination that gets ignored or overlooked or explained away because the stories are called “anecdotal” or the women are “too sensitive” or “hysterical” or “jealous” or “whiny”. These are all words I’ve used myself amongst friends and colleagues as I detailed what was happening to me. As I planned my next report, my next meeting, my next email. I worked with a very close friend who is many years my senior, a man who has been a leader in the tech industry for decades, to ensure what I deemed harassment and discrimination really was what I thought it was, and how I wrote about my experiences conveyed that.
Yes, you read that right. I gut-checked myself with a man to ensure my personal experiences could hold water. And he, rightly, advised me to cut some of the more subtle indignities which could be hand-waved away as a bad leader or a bad boss or a bad mentor.
I talked about this for months, to a dozen people in a position to help, and I inched the proverbial rock up a hill and I didn’t stop. I repeated my story so many times it stopped being awkward. Frequently, I had to look direct managers or superiors in the eye and say, “I am coming to you because of my interactions with X, who has sexually harassed and discriminated against me.”
And at the end of the day, almost no meaningful action was taken. I was told the person had been “spoken to” — and I did notice an awkward shifting change between us. It wasn’t necessarily one of respect. It was more one of fear. Of walking on broken glass around me. You know, me, the hysterical one that reports off-colored jokes. When I continued to press the company for more meaningful action and change (sure, no one talked about my boobs anymore, but they were still belittling me, taking away work, marginalizing me and my work), I was told that soon I wouldn’t have to work directly with the man who harassed me and discriminated against me. When I explained this man was my superior, and could directly and negatively impact my career, I was told that he spoke highly of me and had never said a negative thing about my work — as if somehow that absolved him of the lewd comments and denying me work opportunities. Unsurprisingly, the reallocation of work was explained away as helping others get a strong head start. The fact the reallocation of work was never explained to me was catalogued as very poor communication.
So I quit.
But I didn’t just quit. I made it clear that I was quitting because of the repeated harassment and discrimination and because the company did not take meaningful action. The HR team who did not document or report was complicit. The managers who tried to pacify, rather than mend, were complacent. In my opinion, everyone up to the top of the chain was complacent. We aren’t talking about a rogue individual here. We’re talking about someone who works across the entire company, who is a senior leader, who shapes policy, hires people, and sets the cultural tone for the company. We’re talking about a person who, because of his behavior and my reports, triggered a global ADP Sexual Harassment training.
Everyone can tell the difference between a company covering its ass and a company doing something to actually stop bad behavior and set a public standard as to what is and is not acceptable. It’s not like this behavior happened only to me. It was public, visible, and pervasive across space and time. (I’ve had a man and an advocate of mine walk out of a meeting where I was being treated terribly because he couldn’t condone what was happening in the meeting and didn’t want to be a tacit participant. I had to ask that advocate to not leave but actually speak up next time so that I wasn’t the only dissenting voice in the room. At another such meeting, I had a female colleague of mine take me aside later and commend me for my poise in the face of such appalling treatment and liken my harasser to Donald Trump — a comment that only gets more pointed as the years pass. Hindsight is 20/20, they say.)
At the eleventh hour of my departure, the company tried to retain me. From the top on down, I was told, I was a valued asset and it would be a huge hit to the team to lose me. A banquet of awesome was laid out in front of me.
I was shocked, then I was flattered, then I was amused, and then I got very, very, very, very angry.
So I calmly explained two work-related reasons why this banquet felt poisoned, and then I calmly explained again, in detail, to yet another man, all about the harassment and discrimination I’d faced and why that behavior and the company’s repeated lack of action to fix the behavior was the reason why I was leaving. I was clear that I was leaving them because they were terrible, not going to a better company first. “It’s you, you are the problem.” I kept repeating, like a woman divorcing an abusive spouse. I’m not cheating on you. I didn’t find a better lover. I am getting the hell away from you.
I reiterated, clearly, concisely, and frequently, that the way to retain an employee is to respect and value them. To handle reports of bad behavior rather than managing them and covering them up.
Despite this very, very clear outline of what it would take to retain me, the next day the company clarified their offer on procedural points around role, responsibilities, titles, compensation — and not a word on the issues I had with a high-level executive who was the sole purpose for me quitting. In fact, I was told quite sincerely and without any irony at all, the person who was leading charge to retain me was my harasser.
And so, this conversation came to pass between me and my husband:
I sat there, looking at a job that, in general, I would have been over the moon to take, knowing that there was no way in hell they could ever give me enough money, enough challenge, enough awesome, to make what had happened to me okay. I made a promise to not be complicit in harassment and discrimination ever again. I spent many, many months worried I was going to be fired because of the whistle I kept blowing.
Sitting there with this job offer, I came to think that maybe, just maybe, the CEO of my company hadn’t heard my reports in detail — or perhaps, at all. Many of the people I reported to were men. The two most important reports I’ve given to people who could affect change for me were men. Maybe, just maybe, they listened to my story with dread, horror, revulsion, and then maybe they got on the phone and, like me the first time I had to say something, felt too nauseous to get it all out into the open. Maybe, just maybe, they decided if they fixed 66% of the problem well enough, we’d all stop talking about the elephant in the room.
Here’s the thing: Talking about sexual harassment and discrimination is fucking awkward. But you know what’s worse? Having it happen to you and watching as the colleagues and managers you’ve come to respect do nothing to stop it.
You can offer me a mountain of gold and the coolest, most innovative job on the planet and I will walk away every single time if you allow harassment and discrimination to happen in the workplace without meaningful recourse.
And that’s what I said, when I declined the offer. And that’s what I said, when I declined to sign any non-disparagement paperwork. And I’ll continue saying it, over and over and over again. And I’ll publish a Medium article about it, even if it’s far after the incident happened, even though I’m scared despite the time elapsed and the obfuscations I’ve made, because women and men need to know this shit is not okay, ever, and if companies want to retain good talent, they cannot be complicit in sexual harassment and sexual discrimination. These are basics of human decency. No human, man or woman, no matter how integral to the organization they are, should be above this mandate.
Sexual harassment and discrimination is never acceptable. No employee is so important that they are immune to repercussions when they harass or discriminate. Companies, and the people in power who work for those companies, who do not take meaningful action to stop harassment and discrimination and prevent harassment and discrimination in the future are complicit and should face serious consequences for their complicity.
I will burn my fucking career to the ground if that’s the price I have to pay to say this. This is the rock I will die on. It’s that important, and it’s way past time we all get on board with this basic principle and get rid of everyone who is not.
*Recently and other details in this story purposefully obfuscated for reasons that are painfully obvious.