By Ashley Stahl, Originally Published in Forbes
My client (let’s just call her Samantha) called me recently for career advice. She had started a new job several months prior—basically her dream job—but after a series of incidents, she was transferred to a different division and was no longer doing the kind of work she wanted to do. She wasn’t sure if she should stick it out or look for another job elsewhere.
I asked her what had happened, and she gave me the details. She had been sexually harassed at work by a supervisor, and when she spoke up, HR’s solution was to slap the supervisor on the wrist and transfer Samantha to a different division.
I felt a rage come over me as she shared her story.
How is it that in the year 2017, we are still dealing with situations where a bright, young, savvy female attorney loses her hard-earned dream job because her pervert boss, whose been with the company for decades, won’t be held accountable for his treatment of women in the office? How had this man—also an attorney; oh the irony, given that sexual harassment in the workplace has been illegal since 1980!—been working in a legal setting for this long and gotten away with mistreating his female colleagues?
My blood was boiling. Was it because HR at this particular organization just wasn’t handling complaints adequately? Or was it because the abusive treatment went unreported all of this time? I shuttered to think that it was the latter, but I suspected that was the case. Data actually confirms it: a survey by Cosmopolitan magazine revealed that 71% of women who admitted to being sexually harassed at work didn’t report it. Even a study on workplace sexual harassment conducted by the federal government indicated that three out of four people who are harassed don’t report it. And that same study showed that filing a formal complaint is actually the least common response to workplace sexual harassment.
All of this begs the question: why? The answer is obvious enough.
Women shouldn’t have to choose between maintaining their career path and reporting incidents of sexual harassment, but that is too often the case. Just look at Samantha. She did decide to speak up (kudos to her!), but it cost her professionally. Meanwhile, the complaint had little effect on the supervisor’s career. So it’s no wonder that women fail to report such behavior; they fear retaliation or that they won’t be believed or that a complaint won’t be handled properly. These are, sadly, valid concerns: of the 29% of women in the Cosmo survey who did report being harassed, only about half felt their complaint was handled properly.
In short, half of the time, women who report sexual harassment experience it as not worth the risk.
This got me thinking about gender inequality in the workplace in general. Why is there still such an imbalance? Whose fault is it and whose job is it to fix? Look at the gender pay gap. Here we are going into 2017, and women still make only around 80 cents to every dollar that a man makes for doing the same work. Why? Because we are up against an institution that is so much bigger than us, change can only come at a snail’s pace, if at all?
Or, dare I ask… Is it because we aren’t doing enough to advocate for ourselves as women?
I know I’m hitting a nerve here, but hear me out.
Sexual harassment at work has been against the law for over 30 years now. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a formal definition for sexual harassment in the workplace in 1980. So why is such conduct still so pervasive? Change doesn’t happen overnight, but shouldn’t we be further along after three decades?
Even worse: the Equal Pay Act of 1963 actually makes it illegal for employers to pay women less than men for the same work. Paying men more than women for the same work has been unlawful for more than 50 years. Yet the gender pay gap still stands at around $0.80 for every dollar. Although there are claims that this gap is shrinking, the change is negligible. We’ve had more than half a century to level the playing field. Why aren’t we further along? The Obama Administration took some stepsin hopes of closing the gap, including the passage of the “Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act,” which broadened the statute of limitations for filing an Equal Pay claim.
…But the law is still not enough.
We shouldn’t have to wait decades—half a century, even—for legitimate change. So you know what, ladies? The burden is largely on us. It’s our responsibility to change this toxic culture. It’s our responsibility to follow Samantha’s lead, to stand our ground, to demand what we deserve, despite the risks, so that we can force the change that needs to happen for women professionally.
Who else is going to lead the charge? Certainly not Samantha’s supervisor. What about the government? Do we need more laws and public policy? It’s doubtful that would make a difference, since the existing laws have been around for decades and haven’t brought all the change we need.
It’s on us as a society—all of us. We all have a responsibility to ourselves and to the next generation of women to change the message we send about gender equality.
Here are five steps we all need to take—like, yesterday—to blaze the trail.
1. Educate and increase awareness. We need to educate ourselves, our friends, our colleagues, and our children about the issues women face and how to handle them. If we aren’t recognizing something as a problem, we certainly won’t know to take action to fix it. Case in point: of the women in the Cosmo survey who said they had not experienced sexual harassment at work, 16% of those did admit to being exposed to sexually explicit or sexist comments. Newsflash: being exposed to sexually explicit/sexist comments is a textbook example of sexual harassment. But the women in the survey didn’t see it that way, which is a major problem.
We also need to educate young girls about their worth and their capabilities. Women are just as competent as men: they now comprise about half the entire workforce. More women than ever are out-earning their husbands. Businesses that include female board members outperform those with boards led only by men. Yet there are still too few women in leadership roles—only 4.6% of Fortune 500 CEO’s are female. And part of the reason is that too many women don’t believe that they can lead. A recent study revealed that of 43% of women who entered the workforce indicating their desire to make it to top management positions, only 16% of that population still aspired to make it to the top when asked two years later. Why the significant drop off? They didn’t believe they could do it. They decided to shoulder the work of having kids alone. Educating women about their capabilities and instilling confidence in them is crucial for gaining gender equality in the workplace.
Sally Hogshead, founder of HowToFascinate.com, asserts that one way men can contribute to this is to teach their daughters how to talk about themselves in a way that fascinates. On a biological level, young boys are more likely to learn how to talk about their accomplishments whereas young girls wince back. Fathers and mothers must learn how to encourage their daughters to speak strongly about their skills and achievements. In short, men are more fearless in their ability to fascinate.
2. Speak up for ourselves. Women don’t negotiate their salaries as often as men do when starting a new job. The main reason that women reported for why they choose not to negotiate salary is that it makes them uncomfortable, far more than it makes men uncomfortable.
Ladies, the onus should not be on the employer to secure your future. The onus is on you to ask. If John Doe walks into the same interview as you did asking for $70K, when you asked for $50K, it’s not on the employer to say, “Hey, let’s pony up and show this woman how to play bigger.”
We have to deal with the discomfort, ladies, because trends like these are exactly what perpetuate the gender pay gap. When we start out behind men merely because we didn’t negotiate, the gap only widens over the years because subsequent raises are based upon a percentage of salary.
So we need to stand up for ourselves, but we need to do more than that. We need to challenge organizations to become more transparent about their policies, salaries and how they handle gender equality.
Ever ask your HR manager directly what the gender pay gap is at your company? Maybe we all should hold companies accountable to publishing salaries with a watchdog organization monitoring this. At a minimum, we should be asking employers if they have formal policies on gender equality and how those policies are managed and implemented.
Regardless, it absolutely means we need to speak out against sexual harassment much more than it’s happening now. If it happens to you, go to HR. Don’t think twice about it. After all, it’s not just about you; it’s about all women. Yes, there are risks involved, but we can’t let our fear of what may happen if we report control us anymore. Because every time we let a colleague get away with inappropriate behavior, we’re tacitly sending the message that it’s okay. And not reporting it guarantees that it will happen again, inevitably, and another innocent victim will suffer.
Think about it this way: we all have moments from our past that we regret not standing up for ourselves the way that we could or should have. But can you recall any instances in which you did stand up for yourself that you now regret?
…I didn’t think so. Even my client Samantha tells me she stands without regret.
3. Speak up for others. Employees like Samantha’s supervisor aren’t stupid. They pick their victims wisely: the vulnerable ones who are young, inexperienced, and/or are particularly reliant on their paycheck, like single mothers. They go after timid females who are less likely to report. Samantha is a small-statured, very sweet and soft-spoken woman, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he targeted her. What he didn’t know is that while Samantha is a genuinely sweet and caring and docile person, she is also a fierce lioness with a passion for defending what she believes in… No wonder she chose me as her career coach! Not all victims are as strong and self-assured as she is, though. If you witness a colleague being mistreated, reach out to them. Encourage them to take action. Give them the confidence to know that they don’t deserve to be treated like that and shouldn’t have to tolerate it.
This is a movement that is so much bigger than the individual.
4. Challenge and debunk stale gender perceptions. This one’s difficult, but it’s doable, and absolutely necessary. A lot of the challenges that women face are the result of stale, age-old perceptions about gender that simply need to be done away with. There’s actually a legitimate reason that women negotiate less often than men: when women do negotiate salary, the effect is that both men and women don’t want to work with them or hire them. Because of social perceptions, we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. Follow the social norm of being feminine and not too pushy and opt not to negotiate, you miss out on a higher salary. Push for a higher salary, and you’re perceived as too masculine and aggressive and no one wants to work with you.
We need to debunk these ridiculous perceptions. We need to challenge them outwardly and inwardly. There’s nothing wrong or aggressive or masculine about a woman negotiating her salary to demand her worth. So the next time you judge a woman for negotiating her salary or demanding a raise or advocating staunchly for herself at work, stop yourself. Challenge the notion. Think of how you would want to be perceived if it were you. Change your view of that strong, self-assured woman. Maybe even let her know you admire her strength. The judgment based on bogus gender perceptions needs to stop.
While it’s incredibly frustrating and disheartening to think that women face such lose-lose situations regarding things like salary negotiation because of gender perceptions, it’s also important to point out that taking a practiced, strategic approach will greatly increase your odds of being successful without any backlash. Women admit that negotiating makes them uncomfortable, so the best way to get comfortable is to research your approach and practice how you’ll handle it. Check out these salary negotiation tips, or even consider taking toastmasters classes (they’re so affordable, and they’re everywhere!) if you’re worried about coming off as too aggressive or too passive in the workplace.
5. We need to hold each other up instead of tearing each other down. Oh man, this one really touches a soft spot inside of me. As someone who formerly worked for the Pentagon in Washington, DC, my biggest challenge was not the men who worked alongside me—my experience was that they were incredibly professional, respectful, and encouraging. It was actually the very few women who worked with me that inspired my biggest challenge (not all of them of course—some were lovely and inspiring!). Because there were so few women in the program I ran, most of the ones that I worked alongside were uber competitive—from day one, it was clear that they perceived me as a threat to them and their prospects for career advancement. What an environment. This “Queen Bee” mentality has got to go… And unfortunately such workplace drama among women isn’t uncommon. In a recent study of workplace bullying, of the incidents perpetrated by women, far more were directed at other women (68%) as opposed to men (32%). Females were also, overall, the most likely to be bullied, whether by a male or female perpetrator; they were the victims in 60% of the incidents documented.
Women have the odds stacked against them in other areas professionally, too. Studies show that individuals who have mentors fare better than those who don’t. Needless to say, the higher rank of the mentor, the more effective the mentoring will be, but there aren’t nearly as many high-level female professionals as there are male, so this leaves young women with a much smaller pool of strong female mentors available to them, given that older, successful men often shy away from mentoring young females out of fear of being suspected of having an affair or being inappropriate.
Men at the top, I challenge you to bust through these barriers. Commit today to helping a young female colleague advance professionally. As a career coach, I can tell you one of the best ways to do that is to introduce her to your network. Connect her to the people in high places, just as you would do with any other junior colleague you are mentoring. It won’t require much effort on your part, but it could make a world of difference for her career… And that difference will trickle into the mindset of her family, her kids, and so much more.
We can sit here and continue to victimize ourselves because of the gender inequality that pervades in our work environments, or we can take a hard look at our reality and what needs to be done. There’s work to be done—tough work, indeed, but we have seen what decades of inaction has brought us: progress, but not enough.
Parents, teach your kids to fascinate. Educate them about the issues facing women and how we are all responsible for sparking change. Make sure your daughters grow up understanding their true worth and all they are capable of. Empower them to speak up for themselves and share their achievements without shame.
Men, do your part to break down the boys club that has kept women out of the inner circle for decades. Offer to mentor young female employees. Start doing email intros for them. Help eliminate outdated gender perceptions by challenging them and challenging colleagues who perpetuate such stereotypes.
Women, stop tearing each other down and instead let’s build a foundation that we can all stand on to raise each other up. Let’s look out for each other and speak up when we see something that’s off. This is not a zero-sum game, and the “Queen Bee” mentality has to go. When you see a female colleague in fear and competition, befriend her. Learn how to navigate her fear and support her. Serve as an example.
Let’s be more accountable for our own futures—get comfortable with talking salary, learn the best approaches to negotiate successfully, and demand pay that correctly reflects our worth. Let’s report every incident of sexual harassment we experience, despite the risks, despite the odds, to force change in workplace cultures and protect future generations from such abuse. Get comfortable with reporting issues to HR. Stop future tripping about the possible consequences and start noting it as a contribution to women’s rights.
I so admire Samantha’s strength in standing up against her supervisor. She knew there was a good chance speaking out would negatively impact her career—and unfortunately it did. But she reported him anyway. We need to follow her lead until speaking out becomes the norm, until every Samantha out there can stand up for herself without any risk of negative consequences for doing so, until sexual harassment in the workplace is no longer tolerated and becomes a thing of the past. If we all do our part, we can shift the tide in that direction.
We owe it to ourselves, we deserve it, and god knows we’ve waited long enough.