To Those Who Believe “Strong, Powerful Women” Don’t Get Harassed

Fran S.

Fran S.

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I’ve been a workplace investigator and anti-harassment educator for thirty years.  I am known for my apolitical, pragmatic approach to helping people understand the value of civil workplace conduct and to get them there without shame or blame.  I have always said that we should recognize that any of us are capable of offending others, and we should have humility enough to take feedback well.  In other words, I don’t suggest for a moment that women are singularly vulnerable or that all harassment is intentional.  Nevertheless, the vigorous defense of Fox Chief Roger Ailes,  and ridiculous suggestions that women who are harassed are either at fault or weak calls for an immediate response.

As a hedge against those who would dismiss my points, let me clearly state that not all claims of sexual harassment are found to rise to the level of sexual harassment. Further, I have very occasionally investigated a malicious claim.  I set those aside to speak to those who I have found, or others have found were sexually harassed.

Let’s start with the reality — sexual harassment is a constant barrage of humiliation, offensiveness, boundary violations, and sometimes inappropriate touching. Based on my experience, women who are sexually harassed must exhibit extraordinary strength to coexist with their harasser as they decide whether it is worth it to complain. The average complainant puts up with it, tries to ignore it, objects to it or avoids it for over a year prior to reporting.  “Why not just report it ?” ask the uninformed.  The answer lies in the indisputable reality that charges of retaliation for reporting unlawful harassment far exceed complaints of actual harassment. Fear of job loss, career damage, or other significant and long term consequences are not the province of the weak or powerless. They penetrate every socioeconomic level and career path.  To stand firm in the face of such behavior requires strength.

In the past five years, I have been involved with cases where the complainants are single mothers —  the sole financial support for their children –who are strong enough to daily trade their comfort and dignity, to tolerate one more day of abuse, in order to put bread on the table. Ultimately, these women demonstrated their power, courage, and strength by reporting despite their fear of what might happen to them and their families. They demonstrate the strength to stand up for what is right.

In the past five years, I have also investigated claims by women high up in the C Suite who have had their power and authority squelched by harassers who demean and threaten them with professional or personal damage. I have investigated highly successful professionals harassed by superstar rainmakers who openly remind their targets that they can ruin their careers and their reputations.  I have investigated claims by women with terminal degrees who kept their silence for years, until they had tenure themselves, to call out the bad behavior of a professor who demanded sex in exchange for that degree. I have investigated claims of strong, professional women who were strategic enough to wait until someone else complained to know that strength truly comes in numbers, and corroborated the complaints of others.

I remember one of those cases vividly. The complainant was a corporate officer in a financial services firm. As I sat on her beautiful leather couch in her beautifully appointed office, she told me of her harasser ordering her to fire or demote other women in order to allow his cronies to move up.  She told me that she found every way she could to resist, despite his threats and his history of sexually assaulting her.  She told me she was terrified to complain…until she finally realized she could no longer tolerate it and told her direct superior, an Executive Vice President.  The EVP paused a moment, then said, ” Let’s go to HR together…because years ago, before we had these policies …he did it to me.  I will support you.”  That was one strong, powerful woman helping another.


Fran S.

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