Me, too. And, if you're reading this, and you identify as a woman, probably you, too. Turning the tide on workplace harassment through transparency, solidarity, and support
Here's my story:
I was a new employee at an institution--responsible for, among other duties, preventing and responding to sexual harassment of students--and was assigned a mentor to help me succeed. This person was well-regarded at the institution and I experienced them as taking a genuine interest in me and my work. We met frequently, my mentor sharing institutional knowledge and advice, connecting me to other influential figures in the organization, and supporting my professional growth--it was a positive experience for me. I invited my mentor to my first big public event, and they came.
After offering on-stage remarks, I stepped off-stage - out of the spotlights and into the curtained shadows. Suddenly, I felt an arm snake around my waist and I felt my body being pulled backward and pressed into someone. I felt someone's moist lips press into the bare flesh of my exposed back, hot breath spreading along my skin.
I froze. Then, I pulled away, turned, and saw that the person who had stepped out of the darkness, kissed my bare back, and pressed their body against mine, was my mentor.
The thoughts that flashed through my brain in that nanosecond are still so clear: “Did anyone see this? Did my students see this? My boss? What will they think? Is it because I laughed at their jokes? Gave them a hug? Is this blouse inappropriate? Am I sending mixed signals?" Doubts swirled furiously around an immediate question at the eye of my internal storm of shame: “What did I do to make this person think their touch was welcome, that it was okay?"
I knew that I should report this behavior. And yet, even though it was my job to end sexual harassment on campus, I was terrified to do so. I was afraid. Afraid I would not be believed (who is crazy enough to harass the anti-harassment lady, after all), that I would experience negative impact in my career (I was, after all, new to campus, and this person was very well-liked and respected), and that my damaged credibility would affect my ability to advocate for other staff and for students. And then, only three days later, as I was weighing all these issues in my mind, my university President issued a powerful statement, condemning sexual violence and harassment, and encouraging those impacted to come forward. I printed that statement, shoved it in my bag, and walked to the personnel office to report.
Here's what happened next..
1. My report was taken seriously, and an investigation was immediately launched. Within a week, my mentor admitted the behavior and was found responsible for harassing me.
2. My boss reassured me that reporting was the right thing to do and that I would not suffer consequences. She expressed sincere regret that I had not been safe at my job, and offered me appropriate counseling resources.
3. A plan was put in place that separated me from this person in our professional lives, extending beyond 9-5 to consider all the informal work situations where we may both need to be present.
Over the next half-decade at the institution, this is what happened:
1. I felt respected at my job, and my credibility, professionalism, or authority wasn't questioned because I had made a report.
2. I received opportunities for advancement.
3. I was never asked to work with this person again in any capacity.
4. My supervisors, who changed over time, continued to check in with me to ensure that I was not experiencing negative consequences for my choice to report.
While I should have never been physically assaulted at my job, I received exactly the kind of treatment that EVERY person who experiences harassment in the workplace should receive when they choose to report and that so few actually do. Though I never shared with anyone I worked with that I had reported someone for sexual harassment, my personal experience gave me confidence that the institution would seek to do right by those who came forward to share their experience.
These are the lessons from my own experience that any workplace can adopt to encourage employees to report, and support those who have experienced harm:
1. Provide information and support to the harmed employee during the investigation. Outline specifically what steps the investigation is likely to entail, when possible, offer to notify the employee regarding who you are intending to interview as a part of the investigation, and check in weekly, if desired, on the progress of the investigation. Put protective measures in place during the investigation to ensure the employee does not experience further harm. Take their fears of retaliation seriously and work with them to put a plan in place to prevent retaliation and address it if it occurs. Make confidential counseling options available and provide an opportunity for the individual to use those services during the workday.
2. Once an investigation is completed, share as much information as possible with the reporting employee--including what they can share about their experience and to whom. Word of mouth information about your organization's respectful and effective sexual harassment grievance process is the best way to encourage others to use the systems in place. Engage the impacted employee in developing a plan for supporting their personal and professional well-being that includes regular check-ins. These practices are appropriate regardless of whether the investigation yields a finding of sexual harassment.
3. Increase transparency in how your organization addresses sexual harassment and prevents its recurrence. While organizations may not share information about individual investigations, they can provide information in aggregate. Practices such as issuing a yearly report that provides data on, for example, how many reports were filed, how many were investigated, the aggregate outcomes, and the range of sanctions issued for those outcomes, sends a powerful message to the entire community that sexual harassment will not be tolerated, and that individuals found to have committed the behavior will be held accountable. It is a powerful step in building a culture of respect and trust.
Finally, encourage your senior leadership to address the issue both internally and externally on a regular basis. Messaging that promotes a respectful workplace climate and that encourages reporting, along with effective and prompt investigations and meaningful support for those who do come forward are the keys to both increasing reporting and supporting survivors. In our journey to ending sexual harassment changing the culture begins with transforming #MeToo into #IReportedAndWasSupported.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."