Fight or Flight: How Sexual Harassment Can Give You Wings
When a colleague tells you he trusts your work, it should be a confidence boost. Right?
“I know you can do the legwork,” he said. I nodded along, mind already whirring through what this new assignment would mean, how I should approach it and what I would need to do to prove I had done it well. Even though I was feeling intimidated by the scale of the project, I was consciously trying to fight off my own imposter syndrome. I wanted to do it well. I wanted to prove my value to the company.
Then he spoke again.
“And you have great legs, so…”
My brain screeched to a halt. Heat rushed to my temple, my cheeks, my chest. I felt my eyes widen, my mouth fall open – and though I was conscious that perhaps no visible reaction would have been better for the situation, I couldn’t help my instinctual response.
How was my appearance relevant to my work? Why was this older, male colleague equating the two? Those were certainly unconscious questions reeling in the back of my mind, but in the moment I was just struck by the incongruity of expectation vs. reality. And no part of me could recognize the proper way to react.
Sexual harassment at work – particularly when the harassment is subtle – has been getting its due headlines recently, which is great. Shed the light, please. But the statistics (like one in three women being sexually harassed at work) and the advice (find a trusted female mentor, tell the harasser in plain language to cut it out) – they don’t always account for the sheer panic caused by sexual harassment in the workplace. I know the value of fighting for what’s right, but I haven’t been able to train my body against its visceral reaction of shock, discomfort, fear.
The headlines, the numbers, the advocates – they don’t account for what has become, for me, a psychological issue.
For one thing, I’ve stopped trusting praise from male colleagues. Every time one acknowledges my work or tells me I’ve done a good job, I wonder, “Is he saying that because he wants something else?” You hope that’s not the case, yet you know it very well could be.
And, unfortunately, I’ve also stopped trusting praise from female colleagues. One (who knew about my past experiences with sexual harassment) said to me, “I think [male colleague] is attracted to you.” It planted a seed of doubt in my every interaction with him. And now I fear that all future coworkers, regardless of gender, will only think I’m succeeding because a man in power has a thing for me.
(That female colleague’s response when I asked her not to say things like that anymore? “You’re being too sensitive.”)
More than training my body and mind to react with strong rebukes to these situations, recently I’ve found myself not responding at all. Instead of flinching away from unwanted touch, my spine just stiffens; instead of saying, “That was inappropriate,” I remain silent.
Because while the advocates and my own conscience tell me to fight, my greater motivator in those moments is the fear of altering working relationships (with colleagues of all genders), lacking HR solutions, or potentially getting frozen out of my job and ruining my career.
On top of all this, there is overwhelming evidence that even when you do say something in the moment, there is no guarantee the harassment will stop – so fighting back may be for naught. Take the example of academic workplaces: in a recent New York Times piece, a professor/mentor discussed the real-life experiences of a mentee who was harassed by a male colleague via email – and though she has told him to stop, he has continued his harassment.
It might be, in part, due to my personality type that I shrink away in these situations. But it’s also down to the continuing reality of how sexual harassment is handled from the highest echelons.
And there’s where my “fight” response has finally kicked in. Because I’m angry.
I’m angry that these experiences make us doubt ourselves. I’m angry that we don’t have the right recourse if we choose to say something. I’m angry that most of the discourse right now – including what I’ve written above – is the equivalent of throwing up our hands and saying, “Well, what can you do?”
That’s why I’m writing here. That’s why when this topic comes up I’m pushing myself not to bite my tongue, but rather to bring these realities to light and to speak out about what needs to change.
That’s why I’m taking steps to leverage my career into a role in HR or in advocacy. My “fight” response is going to be joining those highest echelons to combat sexual harassment and the policies that allow it to continue. It’s a weird benefit of what I’ve experienced – I’ve found my passion. In my day-to-day role I’ve been frustrated by not giving back and this is a great potential answer to that frustration.
In the split seconds when sexual harassment occurs, I know I might still cower or shy away. What I’ve learned is that I can’t beat myself up for how I react to sexual harassment. It’s the right reaction because it’s mine. It’s how I feel about an untenable situation; it’s the very essence of a blindsiding experience that means you can’t predict or train your own reaction.
I’m taking that reaction, taking how I feel, and turning it into change for me. Even if it’s not by reacting in the moment, even if it’s by finding a new job – that’s okay.
It’s like they say in the airplane safety videos: put your own mask on first, then help others. You can’t help anyone if you’re not fully prepared yourself.
If this is you – if you’re harassed, or feeling uncomfortable – please remember not to beat yourself up for how you react. It’s cliché... but it’s not your fault. Please take strength from that, from this community and others. Fight whenever you can, but know that others are fighting for you, too.