Open any newspaper today and you’ll see articles about women in business. Some say discrimination no longer exists, sexual harassment is a thing of the past, or that women can succeed simply by doing their job well. Unfortunately, statements like these just aren’t true…because many of the conclusions being drawn are the opinions of men. I thought I owed it to some of those men and to all women to set the record straight by revealing some disturbing realities about discrimination and harassment in the workplace and some unusual ways to combat them.
Reality #1: Even if You’re a Top Performer You Will Face Discrimination
If a woman is a top performer nothing can get in the way of her career progression, right? Not so much. In my own experience I know that great performance doesn’t always translate to the right rewards. As a senior manager at a consulting firm I was leading a project for a retail client in Atlanta and had just sold a huge follow-on engagement, the largest in our firm’s history. The president of the firm called me in for a chat. He congratulated me on selling the biggest project ever and then dropped a bombshell. Apparently the CFO of the client wanted to replace me. Confused, I said, “But I delivered the project ahead of schedule, under budget, and with nearly three times the revenue benefits we predicted. I assume they were happy with me or they wouldn’t have bought more work. What’s the problem?” It was sickening to learn what the client’s problem was—my gender and my race. They insisted upon replacing me with a white male manager or they wouldn’t sign the contract…and my firm was going to accommodate the client’s request. After all my sweat equity and the outstanding performance I turned in for my firm they were not going to stand up for me. That stung. The president said, “What other choice do we have?” I said, “You can do the right thing and tell the client you’re walking away from their business over their unreasonable request. If I can sell this size project once, don’t you think I can do it again?” He was too afraid to lose the business and told me he was sorry but was moving forward with his decision. I said, “You have a daughter, don’t you? Tonight when you sit down at the dinner table I’d like you to tell your daughter about your decision and see if she thinks you make the right choice.”
An amusing postscript was that the white male manager who replaced me was struggling after a couple of months, so my firm asked me to help him out behind the scenes. The client CEO grew so unhappy with the new manager he requested to have me come back and lead the project. At that point I was already leading another client project and wasn’t available.
The experience taught me to be smarter about working the politics in the firm and to strategize to get the rewards I deserved. When the time came for the partner promotions I already had two of my mentors working the system as added insurance. I earned the promotion to partner and became one of the youngest and the first female minority partner in the firm’s 70 year history. However, I was so disgusted with the experience of being replaced because of my gender and ethnicity I knew that the firm didn’t have the values I sought and was not a good long term fit for me. When I walked out the door a large revenue stream walked out with me.
Reality #2: Women Don’t Have to Take Bad Behavior Lying Down
I had to travel to Boston with a male colleague to give an important presentation the following day. It was late when we arrived at the hotel but we still had lots of work to complete. Because the hotel lobby was undergoing renovations and the restaurant was closed we had to work in an alcove in the hallway. After some time a security guard came over and asked if we could work in one of our rooms so we wouldn’t disturb other guests.
My colleague Brock suggested we work in my room since it was the closest. My immediate gut feeling was uneasiness, but I agreed anyway and we went into my room where I propped the door wide open with a large garbage can. We finally finished up the work and I was exhausted and ready to call it a day.
Instead of leaving my room, Brock kicked off his shoes and draped himself across the bed. I said, “What on earth are you doing?” He patted the bed and invited me to join him to relax together. “You look tense,” he said, “let me give you a massage.” Things were getting bizarre and fast. I said, “You need to leave. I’m tired and I want to go to sleep.” Brock said he found me very attractive and wanted to watch me get ready for bed. I said, “Number one, no. Number two, creepy. Leave now. Get off the bed.” He said, “You can’t make me.” I considered my options: Call security? Too slow. Call our head of HR? Definitely nothing would happen. Call Brock’s wife? It was almost as if he were reading my mind because what Brock said was chilling, “If anything happens it’s your word against mine.”
Something snapped inside me. I was tired and not about to tolerate this crap. I said, “You know what? You’re right about that.” Then I grabbed both his ankles and yanked him hard off the bed. Completely stunned by my swift action, Brock didn’t have time to resist. I heard him say two things: “Wow, you’re really strong.” And “Ouch, I hit my head.” I quickly dragged him across the floor and deposited him outside the door, then slammed it shut. There was a weak knock at the door and I opened it a crack. Brock, still lying prostrate, said weakly, “I forgot my computer.” I ran and grabbed his computer bag and shoes and tossed them onto his stomach. I said, “Don’t ever do that again,” and shut the door.
If Brock ever shared what happened my prepared response was, “Come on, do you really believe little ole me could drag big Brock out of a hotel room?”
Reality #3: Even at the Most Senior Ranks, You’re Not Immune to Harassment
As a Board Director and CMO of a smart apparel company, I flew to LA to do an interview with a major newspaper about the launch of the world’s first smart sports bra. Although we were running behind schedule the male reporter took some time before the interview to chat me up about living in San Francisco and showed me photos of his younger self when he ran a record store in the Haight.
The videotaped interview proceeded and I answered questions about the smart sports bra and the app, which allowed the user to track their body’s biometrics- heart rate, breathing, activity such as steps taken and calories burned. I wore the smart bra under my clothes and showed my body signals on my iPhone. I also had a sample of the smart bra, which I held up to show to the camera. We wrapped up the interview and the reporter asked me to come into his office.
Inside his office the reporter said, “Okay, now I’d like to get some photos of you in the sports bra.” That was unexpected. “Why?” I asked, “You’ll be receiving professional digital images of pro athletes using the smart bra within the hour. You don’t need my picture.” He was insistent. I explained that in order to photograph me in the smart bra I’d have to remove my shirt and I assumed he’d back off. But then he asked me to take off my shirt. Seriously? I said, “No.” He asked me a second time. The reporter was a tall man and leaned over me against the doorframe blocking my exit. “No, I’m not comfortable with that,” I said. I was calm and held my ground. Unbelievably, he asked me a third time to take off my shirt. That made me angry. I pushed past him and said, “Nope, not happening. This interview is over.”
As soon as I left I contacted the head of the PR firm that had set up the interview. Although the woman running the PR firm was horrified by the incident, she didn’t want to take action. She was afraid that newspaper might not grant future interviews to her PR firms. So I called the CEO of the smart apparel company who was appalled and immediately contacted the reporter. He said, “What were you thinking? This woman is a chief executive and a board director. You asked to take off her shirt not once, not twice, but three times? That’s insane!” At first the reporter brushed it off but then he slowly realized his actions were not professional and not okay.
The following week I got a call from the reporter’s boss, a woman, who wanted to hear exactly what happened. Then she asked me what I wanted to do. I said, “I just want him to apologize and not to do it again to anyone else.” Although I told the reporter “no” several times, my concern was that a more junior woman put into the same situation might feel compelled to do what he asked…and she’d regret it for the rest of her life. I wanted to prevent that from happening.
Shortly thereafter I received a sincere apology from the reporter who admitted his behavior was inappropriate and that he wished he kept his “big mouth shut.” I told him I appreciated that he took responsibility for his actions and I accepted his apology and hoped it would never happen again.
Discrimination and harassment exist do in reality and even in fiction. In my novel The Closer, about the first female CEO of a sports company and the secret society of professional women who help her succeed called the Ceiling Smashers, my goals was to show how a strong female leader deals with these situations.
These tactics to combat discrimination and harassment may be unusual- strategizing to get your just rewards, grabbing the bull by the horns (or the man by the ankles) and standing up for yourself while enlisting the support of others. But the important thing to remember is that we all have the power to say no.