Did I Bring This on Myself?

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Photo by Melinda Young Stewart via Flickr Creative Commons

By Halima Aquino

The disturbing revelations I witnessed first-hand, experienced, heard about or gleaned over the years flooded my head as I woke up yet again last week to more “coming out” stories of women shrouded in workforce silence. I thought, “Oh boy, #^€> is going to hit the fan!” We will see more of these confessions– not because people are lying but because many of these stories are probably true, and we should start by taking embarrassing admissions seriously.

In thinking about the various famous men who stand publicly accused by multiple women for rape, forcing sexual acts, groping, sexually intimidation or pedophilia, I am reeling. Like everyone else, I combed my memories. I thought more deeply about the more pervasive and subtle problems my colleagues have encountered in a variety of circumstances.

The bottom line is that men who show consistently poor sexual or any other kind of poor judgment should not be entrusted with a leadership position. Let us remember this as we continuously improve our government institutions and private corporations.

We should also recognize that there are many stories we will not hear much about in public because they are probably legal and do not fly against norms or an “Employee Handbook.” They are less startling on the surface, but they can be so serious and detrimental that we need to plan solutions, for everyone’s sake.

As a board member and chair, startup entrepreneur, mentor, political researcher and an employee in government and private industry, my graduate training in psychology and entrepreneurism along with my professional experience made me sensitive to sexually loaded interactions that financially and professionally affect women and their family’s lives.

My career has been joyfully filled with friends, mentors, high-level leaders and colleagues of both sexes. I have, more frequently than not, worked and socialized with a range of male leaders, with no women present. Sometimes, men and women are oblivious to the depth and breadth of the problems men ignite that go on to burn women’s careers.

People can rationalize how or why talented, educated, experienced and hardworking women do not rise to leadership positions in the absence of convincing “evidence” against conventional wisdom. When we see women “bearing the brunt” of social problems they have with men or “soldiering on,” despite ensuing antagonism or rude behavior that is personal, not work-related, many want to look deeper but don’t.

The isolation and financial distress that many women face due to common and legal interactions with men at work can be professionally devastating. Some of the most common and subtly challenging workplace scenarios that preoccupy women’s imaginations and work life are not about their work. In the 21st century, we know there are many factors at play, when we see few women at the top.

Importantly, any employee’s level of success lies deep within their everyday, social, work-related interactions. As women increasingly take high leadership roles, the equation is far from balanced. Uncomfortable social relations between men and women are an important part of this phenomenon, in no small part because men hold many of the leadership positions that women covet.

Many professional women feel they cannot easily share, understand or think too much about the “where, when and why” of their social quandaries with men on their way up difficult career ladders. Rather, they want to excel in their work and careers, so they go about poorly “fixing things” with men on their own. What some women might consider “self-reliance” could sometimes feel look more like self-imposed trouble.

As we open Pandora’s box of workplace sexual misdeeds, we are bound to see all levels of strange tales that surface in people’s memories. Women and men everywhere will undoubtedly hear familiar stories on TV that they have never discussed publicly. They might re-experience their own pain or begin talking about difficult topics for the first time. They should consider discussing this with a trusted friend or counselor to start. Let us all generously “hear women out.” What do we have to lose?

Sexually uncomfortable issues at work can erode women’s self-confidence or movement up career ladders. There are many reasons we do not see enough women in leadership positions at work. These issues are so pervasive, uncomfortable and misunderstood that men and women sometimes have difficulty seeing the culprits when secondary and tertiary effects take hold. How often do we think about the effect of inappropriate flirting on a family’s standard of living? Without recommended antidotes, women can suffer emotional, self-esteem and economic consequences that are difficult to interpret and rectify, after the fact.

The emotional and economic toll taken by legal but “troubling interactions,” brought on by men’s more subtle behavior, often goes unnoticed. Women feel they might risk their careers over “small” or “normal” incidents. Now they might ask, “Was this just locker-room talk?” Women do not discuss these problems with others, even though they badly might want to rid themselves and others of problems that keep them from being their true selves. Why?

When women feel distressed about uncomfortable situations, few want to “make a mountain out of a molehill” or “seem paranoid.” Women might ask, “Where does it all end?” or feel that “Nothing I do will make a difference,” so they look for quick fixes that really do not work at all. Many want to move on to “bigger and better things.” They hope that ignoring problems will make them go away.

The cliché phrases used here are intentional. They contain some of the nagging themes that can hold women back—regardless of whether they realize it. As women repeat critical phrases in their heads or hear them aloud, they can appear “ill at ease,” and an ensuing domino effect creates barriers in delicate professional relations.

Few women receive effective advice. Advisory phrases come from cliché environments in media, TV, movies and outdated parental advice. These phrases often silence women. No one wants to “make waves,” we hear people say.

Whatever the reason that these problems exist, women are unlikely to receive legitimate advice or speak up. Ambitious, well-educated and experienced women do not want to “rock the boat,” “alienate” others, “be seen as a problem” or “not tough enough,” “uptight” or “not a team player.” They might also merely lack effective communication skills.

Mostly, women do not complain about subtle sexually loaded situations that subtly deter them from pursuing jobs, networking, closing deals and raising money. Whether consciously or not, if a woman does not attend a work retreat/conference because a colleague made her feel sexually uncomfortable, she might suffer from her own as well as others’ misinterpretations of what happened next.

In a competitive environment, who will pinpoint the source of the problem, if a woman’s relationships with upper management start to fray? Saddled with misunderstandings, a talented woman who works hard to “do the right thing” but loses confidence because she cannot find her professional ladder might see opportunities disappear. Men and women tend to nurture leaders with visible self-confidence, charisma and social skills.

Women, like men, need good rapport with their colleagues and upper management during casual off-work activities as well as in the office. However, when women want to be respected for their work, as opposed to their looks, they might change themselves in unnatural ways. They might unnaturally adjust their personality, voice or social interactions in the hope of refocusing people’s attention their intelligence, dedication, self-reliance and hard-earned skills.

In turn, women can inadvertently damage their overall rapport with colleagues and customers because they might not seem congenial or natural. Picture a woman who avoids eye contact with men because one boss or colleague sexually threatened or intimidated her. In a single, silent moment, she could send complex messages that could be grossly misinterpreted. Eye contact at work is critical in the United States.

How tragic.

Let us remember, sometimes a woman who “makes a big deal out of things” when she is not seen as “being abused” can face worse consequences than one who says nothing at all. Most women who want to “win”—in the moment–might ignore things and move on. Either way, these decisions pose challenges to a woman’s career because women are no longer comfortably acting like their best selves.

For an ambitious woman with an expensive education and a strong work ethic who is experienced, professional and self-motivated, a loss of professional success (even in part) due to men’s repeated overtures is devastating because it is not within her control.

For the record, I favor skillfully confronting people¾either di rec t ly or through an intermediary¾because consequences speak loudly. Confronting bad behavior is empowering because it helps solve problems and point blame in the correct direction. Silence breeds chaos. Some people need the threat of consequences to do the right thing.

There is no “cure”—yet. If we raise our level of consciousness, without fear and brainstorm healthy solutions, women can stop having to address (or never addressing) untold social problems with men on their own.

*****

Halima Aquino, M.A., is the director of the Central Valley–based Voter Engagement and Education Project (VEEP). Contact her at 559-343-3124 or hali.voterproject@ gmail.com.