By Halima Aquino
One of the silent cruelties that is more common than many of us realize and has always bothered me is that the more successful a woman gets, the more sexually “inappropriate behavior” or flirting can dramatically hurt talented and valued women’s chances for professional and economic success.
Career killing subtle sexual advances are not usually as much of a concern as outright threats or abuse, but they can devastate women, marriages and families, all of which need women to succeed at the highest levels.
Think of it this way: Many women must work harder and, some would argue, get more education to succeed in a man’s world (at the top). Even with all the necessary ingredients, it is the nuanced sexual language in the workplace that puts women in complicated quandaries that baffle and confuse even the cleverest women among us.
Women suffer silently from subtle sexualized workplace advances and accusations often because calling attention to them might seem to be a sign of weakness. “I should just handle this myself,” she might think to herself. Most often, women have no idea how to do this. In competitive environments, this quandary can be shrouded in subtle, guilt-inducing requests and promises, then denial, followed by awkward responses to confusing behavior.
Consider this: An untrained or inexperienced woman can feel doomed from the moment a workplace male merely hits on her. Does this seem strange to you?
- Women and men often attribute a woman’s success to sexual (attraction and actions–not skill.). The truth has little to do with this. A woman now must prove herself even more, and the situation is lose-lose until she stops caring what people think.
- The relationship between women and men can get awkward, and no woman needs this at work. She has enough to worry about. The trouble is that she can’t prevent it from happening. She thinks she can, but she can’t. So whether she ignores it and hopes it goes away or addresses it outright–either in private or to a trusted colleague–everything changes for the woman. The man goes on, and his career is generally not affected. Women and men start to wonder what the woman did wrong. Mostly the woman herself wonders this. Was it her behavior or clothes?
Scenario: A female colleague was asked out by a man and she tried politely to let him down by saying many things, including the fact that she was married. She thought the man was a friend, so when he distanced himself completely and said he couldn’t talk to her any more, she tried to figure out how to repair the situation. The problem was that she needed his advice and knowledge.
- A woman who tries not to get hit on at work must change who she is or at least thinks she needs to do so. This might make her less personable and could affect her career. Women should all dress professionally, of course, but the problem comes when women try to “act a certain way” that feels unnatural. Women are genuinely more personable, attractive and successful when they feel unencumbered and behave like their own professional selves.
Scenario: I heard Hillary Clinton complain that she sometimes feels unsure about how to comport herself in public and be both natural and commanding in a man’s world. I noticed that she was adjusting her vocal tone. Her voice became deeper over time. Was this to sound more authoritative?
I read in another article that Hillary had received vocal training at one point in her career to reduce her Southern accent because she thought she might communicate better that way. Although not uncommon, the author noted that people who correct their accents sometimes lose their emotional expressivity. This is not surprising. Actors have the same difficulty and must remember that their accent changes might affect their character’s ability to communicate feelings.
When Hillary noticeably lowered her voice, the warmth and personality that I believe was visible in early tapes of her interactions with Bill Clinton, when he was still governor of Arkansas, seemed to disappear completely. Hillary was often criticized in the media during the Presidential race for being “too cold.” Were her vocal alterations a factor? I believe so.
- A woman might be reluctant to go out to dinner or a bar with male colleagues because she doesn’t want to be hit on, the men’s significant others or wives would “not appreciate it” or other colleagues might accuse her of unprofessional behavior. The problem is that the higher a woman goes up the professional ladder, the more likely she is to be the only female in a professional group. And she has a choice–play ball in the off hours with the rest of the guys or get left behind.
Scenario: A woman entrepreneur who sold her product in Japan said she purposely went out to bars and dinner with male colleagues. She was never there with another woman. Japanese women typically never go. She said she made a point of drinking with the men because she didn’t want to be treated differently. She was attractive and insisted that no one dared to hit on her. My guess is that she would never let anyone know for fear that she’d lose clients. I believe that many men can and do act professional and fine in these circumstances, but when she said no one ever hit on her I was suspicious that she had secrets.
- Men sometimes implicitly or explicitly tie a woman’s success to a choice: She can accept pats on the bottom, hands around her body, dating or sex, or miss out on opportunities. Women don’t even know what’s a real or a perceived choice, but they look for signs. They often feel that they must make choices that men rarely face. For example, if a woman is waiting for a sale to go through or hoping for a promotion or funding for her startup, she will often accept dinner invitations. She also knows that she might face a make-or-break sexually loaded moment that she can control but dreads. Once it’s even hinted at, she’s generally face-to-face with a lose-lose quandary.
Scenario: A woman trying to sell a product to a buyer at an airline felt privileged to have landed a pitch meeting. The buyer liked the product but asked the woman to go skiing after she made her presentation. She asked for a decision about the product first, and he refused. She opted to lose the sale by turning down the offer. He never bought the product. Can she say for sure that she lost a lucrative sale by not going skiing? No, but she still wonders to this day.
These examples are nuanced and show real dilemmas that women face all the time. When confronted with subtle, non-abusive sexually laced choices, women can feel as if they face dire or troubling consequences for their careers. These situations are uncomfortable to discuss, and they do not rise to the level of abuse or law breaking. But they hurt women.