Fending Off the Creeps: How to Avoid Sexual Harassment
As a woman and a 20-year Silicon Valley veteran, I'm intrigued by Ellen Pao's well-covered sexual harassment lawsuit against VC firm Kleiner Perkins. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, including both Pao and KP, but certainly both sides of the case seem to have valid arguments.
Regardless of what happens, it's a reminder of just how male-dominated the business world remains in 2012--and why women who want to succeed in this world have to learn how to thrive in it. When it comes to dealing with unwanted attention or even all-out harassment, the challenge is how to take the incident seriously but manage it successfully, so that it doesn't stifle your business ambitions or sap your confidence. Here are a few takeaways that have helped me along the way.
Don't sweat the small stuff.
Part of working together every day with the same people includes joking around and, yes, even a bit of teasing. How many times have you heard a man give another man a hard time about his clothes or his habits, or even his work? It's how men often relate, and it's typically not personal. Men don't cry or shut down; they either roll their eyes or dish it back. Learn to do the same. And if you get good and clever at dishing it back, you might be surprised at the additional respect you gain.
Draw a hard line.
Some joking and bantering is fun and tolerable; some isn't. When it isn't, call it out--immediately. Completely change your demeanor, be direct, make it very clear they've crossed a big line. It can be as simple as "OK, that wasn't funny" or as serious as "you are making me feel very uncomfortable right now, please stop." Even better if others are around to hear you. Trust me--no individual wants to be the accused in a harassment situation and if you treat it seriously, the other person probably will too.
Rise above the haters.
Sometimes it is personal and potentially damaging. My good friend Christine is VP of business development at a biotech firm. She is wicked smart, young, and beyond beautiful. She had spent months devising an M&A strategy for her company and was presenting for the first time to an all-male board. It was a risky recommendation to shift from forming partnerships to seeking acquirers and she anticipated some tough questions. An older male board member eyed her up and down obnoxiously, clearly not listening and attempting to throw her off her game. As she was speaking he interrupted and said to the CEO, "The first thing you need to do is get rid of the GIRL." Many would falter in this situation, which is what he wanted, but Christine thought "Oh, bring it on, Baldylocks." She stood a little taller, looking a bit more beautiful, looked him straight in the eyes, and shot back: "Well that's one option, or we can further examine the facts..." and went on to provide even more info for the board.
The meeting ended with near-unanimous support for her recommendations and a renewed respect for her from the rest of the board and her CEO. The board member was later removed due to his behavior in the meeting. She wins big, he loses. I know it's easier said than done, but in most cases you'll find that people don't want to see others harassed. Be confident in your intelligence and skills and rise above the jerks.
Put your business and pleasure mixture on ice.
I can't say don't do it, or I'd be a hypocrite, but dating people you work with often leads to issues. One of Pao's claims is against a man with whom she says she had a consensual sexual relationship. I'm not saying he didn't harass her--maybe he did, and if so then it was wrong. But maybe he was someone she should have steered clear of in the first place? Think long and hard about whether or not a relationship at work is worth the risk. If it is, then keep your eyes open and be ready to handle the potential consequences.
If you're truly feeling harassed, document the situation immediately and report it. One of the biggest knocks against Ellen Pao is that supposedly she endured harassment for some time before officially reporting it. How can you get the support you need if no one knows what you're experiencing? If you're harassed by a co-worker or boss, talk to HR, as they are trained to deal with such matters with discreetness and in confidence.
The situation is obviously trickier if you're a female entrepreneur and the harassment comes from, say, a board member or potential investor. But remember: You never should have to endure harassment. Talk about the situation with someone you trust, perhaps another board member or investor and get their support. Then go directly to the harasser. Be clear and strong, and insist that the situation change--or you will make it change. It may seem extreme to think of removing one of your board members (or forgoing a much-needed investment), but it's really the only solution. You can't be an effective leader if you're more worried about your safety than your business--and your other board members and investors will surely agree.