4 Tips for Navigating Sexism and Harassment in the Workplace

Despite the #MeToo movement’s work to draw attention to sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace, there is still plenty to do to make work a safe and equitable place for everyone.

The B2B publishing industry is not immune to these issues, which is why ASBPE hosted a webinar called “Women at Work: Strategies for Navigating Workplace Sexism and Harassment” (a recording is available at the link). While there are certainly moral reasons for everyone to take sexism and sexual harassment seriously, there are practical ones as well. “Research has found that businesses are 16% less profitable when they don’t take equality seriously,” says Dr. Leah Leach, founder of Gal’s Guide to the Galaxy, which includes the first lending library of women’s history books in the U.S.

During the webinar, a panel of four experts from two continents shared practical information, resources, words of encouragement and ideas for where victims and allies can draw strength and inspiration. Four of our top takeaways are below.

Although this session was geared toward women, ASBPE encourages everyone—male, female or non-binary—to listen. Although women are more likely than men to face harassment in the workplace, these issues are truly about people in positions of power exploiting others who are not. Anyone can find themselves in an uncomfortable situation at some point in their career.

Tip #1: Understand what workplace harassment is

People who are abused or demeaned in the workplace might not realize that what’s happening to them constitutes harassment—and that it’s against the law. By the same token, people who makes off-color jokes or discriminatory statements may not fully grasp that what they’re doing could land them in a lawsuit. 

Dr. Karen McLean, department chair and associate professor of social work at Western Connecticut State University, recommends that people familiarize themselves with what harassment is so they can take action if they experience or see it, or stop themselves from inadvertently becoming harassers.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and is regulated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Any company with 15 or more employees must follow the guidelines laid out in these regulations.

According to McLean, harassment includes unwelcome sexual advancements and requests for sexual favors. “However, harassment doesn’t always have to be sexual,” she pointed out. “It can be remarks that someone makes about a person’s sex. … Sometimes, someone may make a comment that ‘I don’t like men’ or ‘Women are all dumb.’ Those all constitute harassment.”

Comments such as these shift from ill-advised to illegal when they’re so frequent or so extreme that they creates a hostile or offensive work environment. Harassment also occurs when a person’s employment is adversely affected; for example, the victim is fired or demoted.

Tip #2: Develop formal and informal ways to protect yourself

If you are assaulted or harassed in the workplace, “You want to write down everything that happened,” said McLean. Record every incident in a notebook, including the date, the time, the location and exactly what happened. “This will be very helpful if you need to take things a step further and deal with HR and deal with an attorney.” Among other things, it demonstrates that there is a pattern of harassment and that you have taken time to document it.

“Timing is important when you are reporting these instances, but it’s important for you as a victim to really take some pause and take some time to yourself to gather your thoughts and get your composure,” said McLean. “You want to be prepared for some emotional challenges in dealing with this, as well as developing courage. A lot of us, when these things happen, we’re blaming ourselves. We’re not sure what to do.” It takes courage and good presence of mind to come forward and fight back.

One way to protect yourself from inappropriate behavior at work is to watch for a few potential red flags from supervisors, says Jaylan Salah, an Egyptian translator and poet whose writing often reflects on her experiences with workplace sexual harassment. “If there is an unnecessary meeting that is taking place at a time that was not designated before, check if this meeting could be avoided, especially if you have a certain feeling about the person holding the meeting,” she said. If the meeting is deemed necessary, try to get a colleague or supervisor attend as well.

Beware of invitations to meet or even walk through areas that are secluded or devoid of security cameras. If a supervisor contacts you outside of work and makes inappropriate comments on social media phots or in other public places, that may be a precursor to inappropriate behavior at work. “If you’re working late night shifts, try to have someone looking after you,” Salah advised. Working near other people or other departments rather than being isolated in the building is a good idea.

These types of informal decisions can help prevent harassment or assault at work. For women who have experienced this behavior, or even behavior from others that has made them uncomfortable, developing an informal support network can be highly beneficial. That support network can include friends, family members, co-workers and/or a counselor, says McLean.

Salah encouraged everyone to trust their gut and discuss behavior that seems off with other women. She and her sister had a male colleague who was being called unprofessional nicknames and receiving unwarranted attention by a male supervisor, and they were able to help him identify the behavior as problematic. “If you have something that doesn’t feel right but you can’t put your (finger) on it, reach out” to others and talk about it.

Tip #3: Be an ally

It is vitally important that women, non-gender conforming and other individuals not be left alone to deal with sexual harassment and sexism. Everyone in the company has a responsibility to fight discrimination and stand up for those who are being abused by people in power.

Gal’s Guide publishes a resource guide for male allies, but Leach shared a few highlights. If someone comes to you and reports an assault or other inappropriate behavior, be supportive. Research has found that the reaction of the first person somebody comes to after a stressful event largely dictates what they will do going forward. “Were they challenged? Were they listened to? Were they completely embraced and told, ‘These are the steps we need to work through to fix this’? It matters, so be that person somebody can come to.”

Set a good example for behavior in the workplace. This doesn’t mean having perfect behavior all of the time, Leach noted. “Be the best version of yourself. I think we’re all trying to do better. (Do) the best you can in the moment that you have with the resources that you have. It’s about being enough.”

Confronting someone at work—especially a person in a position of power—can feel very uncomfortable. But if we are to fight for a world that is welcoming to everyone, Leach pointed out, sometimes we need to do things that make us feel uncomfortable. Know that feeling uncomfortable or scared is OK, and that you’re doing the right thing by using your own power to stand up for someone who may have less than you.

Tip #4: Find sources of strength and inspiration

Fighting sexism and harassment by calling it out in the workplace, fighting back against abusers, being an advocate for a victim, or taking action can be exhausting and painful. It’s important for everyone to find sources of strength and inspiration.

Leach benefits from reading about the struggles of other women throughout history. “Women have done far more with less rights than we have today,” she pointed out. As specific examples, she shared the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who invented rock and roll (“Even Elvis came to see her play”); Heddy Lamarr, who invented the technology that enables many of today’s wireless devices; and Wilma Mankiller, who was the first female chief of the Cherokee nation. “By knowing their story, we can see how we can elevate (our circumstances) and make the world more inclusive.”

McLean finds great comfort in books, both those that provide information or an escape. Self-care, too, is important, whether it’s spending time in nature, exercising, listening to music or something else. And Salah feels inspired by being around other women who can share their own stories, experiences and insights into living with and fighting back against discrimination of all kinds.

For more information on this topic, please watch ASBPE’s entire webinar or check out these resources:

Sophia McDonald Bennett

Sophia McDonald Bennett is a freelance editor and frequent contributor to numerous B2B publications. She also teaches marketing communications and other 400-level courses at the Lundquist College of Business at the University of Oregon. Her areas of specialty include wine, food, sustainability, home/garden and the nonprofit industry. Bennett previously served on the ASBPE National Board of Directors.

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