We need to remember that there are many forms of harassment, and not all of them are overtly sexual.
December 11, 2018 5 min read
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Last year, I volunteered to judge a business plan competition for incarcerated men at a local prison. One of the hosts was a local venture capitalist, known publicly for his vocal support of women’s empowerment. He blogged about it. He even hosted talks at his offices.
Among the judges, I was the only woman and the youngest by at least 10 years, and I held the minority view in our deliberations. During my impassioned defense of one entrepreneur, the local VC turned to me. “You’re making a horrible face,” he observed coldly. “Does everyone else have to have the same opinion you do?”
Let’s stop and parse those words.
He was shrewd enough to dis me twice in the same breath — not only was I failing to look pretty and pleasant, but I was daring to argue instead of simply agreeing.
In this age of #MeToo, as our society finally opens an honest conversation about sexual harassment and assault, we need to remember that there are many forms of harassment, and not all of them are overtly sexual. A man doesn’t have to snake his hand up your skirt, ask for your number after a pitch or offer to fund your startup if you sleep with him in order to inflict harm.
Lilia M. Cortina, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in workplace harassment, pioneered the theory of selective incivility. Cortina argues that while overt discrimination toward women and people of color is now unacceptable in the workplace, it has been replaced with “rude, condescending and ostracizing acts that violate workplace norms of respect, but otherwise appear mundane.”
In her 2015 written testimony to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Cortina defined three types of harassment: gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion. She described gender harassment as conduct that “expresses insulting, degrading or contemptuous attitudes about people of one’s gender.” Crucially, Cortina emphasized that gender harassment, which is not aimed at sexual cooperation, is by far the most common of the three behaviors.
Related: Women, It’s Time to Take Control
“This conduct is not about misguided attempts to draw women into sexual relationships; quite the contrary, it rejects women and attempts to drive them out of jobs where they are seen to have no place,” she wrote.
We can see this phenomenon in all spheres and at every level of our society. Who can forget Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “Nevertheless, she persisted,” following the vote to silence Elizabeth Warren during Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing in 2017?
Not even female justices on the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) are immune. A study published by researchers at Northwestern University in 2017 found that female justices were interrupted at disproportionate rates — not only by their male colleagues, but by male advocates (in breach of SCOTUS protocol). Even women in the highest ranks of government can’t escape our country’s gender dynamics.
Subtle harassment is still harassment.
At first blush, it may seem like these are small, more-or-less-benign behaviors. If someone talks over you a few times or asks you about your kids instead of your career, can’t you just ignore it?
No, and here’s why: That insult that was lobbed at me — you’re making a face and being pushy — was enough to undermine my credibility with everyone else at the table. Had I wanted to ask any of them for advice or an introduction, their first impression of me would have included the moment when a well-respected man had made it clear that my opinion didn’t matter.
Related: Men: Be the Hero
The truth is that bringing more women into the workforce is not enough to create equality; the underlying issues of incivility and gender harassment must be addressed and rooted out. That means examining organizational culture for prejudices or behaviors that make it harder for women to succeed. Women also need to speak up about the reality of gender harassment if we want things to change. As a mother of two young daughters, I feel real urgency about addressing this issue now.
You may be wondering what happened after the venture capitalist accused me of being both unattractive and argumentative. I wish I could tell you I gave a rousing speech calling him to task for his behavior.
Instead, I stood up and excused myself. In the restroom, I splashed cold water on my face and fumed. As the event came to a close, he found his way over to me and thanked me for my participation. He never apologized.
If I had it to do over again, I would have said something. Not only did I fail to advocate for myself, but I missed an opportunity to educate the venture capitalist about how his behavior conflicted with his public advocacy for women’s empowerment. It would have been an uncomfortable conversation, but I’ll take some discomfort now if it means my daughters are treated with more respect down the line.