In the wake of the sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein and his consequent fall from power, the continually misunderstood experience of reporting workplace harassment is finally getting some airtime. Not only is it harder and more complicated than many give it credit for, it’s an emotional labor that a reported one in three women have experienced. As we continue to explore what the aftermath of harassment should look like for the guilty, and how to prevent it in the future, there’s another part of the process we can’t ignore: the moment it actually happens.
Although Weinstein’s alleged transgressions were quite explicit, the American Association of University Women’s definition of harassment includes a range of subtleties: “‘Sexual harassment’ describes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” Due to its broad definition, a reported 16% of women don’t even know what they’re experiencing is sexual harassment in the first place. Of the women that do, a whopping 72% of them don’t report their experiences. The stats change depending on the study, but they’re never not disturbing.
I asked two experts to help me put together a guide for people who have found or may find themselves in uncomfortable situations at work, which may not make the news, but which happen every day on a startling scale. Dr. Astrid Heger is the Executive Director at Violence Intervention Program and a professor at USC’s Keck School of Medicine with a focus on violence against women. Lindsey Pratt, LMHC, is a New York-based psychotherapist who specializes in sexual trauma. Their tips are specifically geared toward women experiencing sexual harassment at work from men, but it’s important to note workplace discrimination happens between people of all genders, races, orientations and backgrounds, and many of these reminders are broadly applicable.
Prioritize your feelings over someone else’s
Remember this person is making you feel this way. It’s not your job to protect the harasser’s feelings. “Women may feel the urge to spare a person’s feelings with a smile,” Pratt says. “We live in a society where assertive men are branded as confident and assertive women are labeled as bitchy.” If you feel uneasy, Pratt strongly suggests you not invalidate your own feelings. “If you feel threatened or uncomfortable or pissed off, that’s all relevant information and can be delivered as is and without sugar-coating.”
Frame your words around how you feel
Instead of pointing a finger, both Pratt and Dr. Heger stress explaining how this person is making you feel. Although your accusations (i.e. “You’re discriminating against me”) may be completely fair, Pratt explains that citing feelings, which a person cannot argue with, will usually provide the quickest means to an exit. Resist the urge to soften the blow by providing an explanation. Try saying, “You’re making me uncomfortable,” instead of, “I don’t date people from work.” By stating a feeling, the hope is that you can avoid arguing semantics and shorten the interaction. Pratt says clarity is key when you’re dealing with someone who’s already willfully ignoring boundaries.
Dr. Heger, who has experienced a lot of workplace discrimination herself, has found this straight-forward approach highly effective. “I would say right to a man’s face, ‘I feel embarrassed and devalued when I’m treated like this,’ and it stopped him in his tracks.'” She teaches all the women in her department to respond that way.
Don’t worry about intent
Pratt suggests not busying yourself with analyzing a person’s intentions. No matter how playful a conversation may be, if it solicits an emotional response in you, honor that. “Any time you feel uncomfortable or threatened, there is something there that has merit,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what the other person’s intention is.”
Accept that it will happen so you’re ready when it does
As discouraging as this may sound, Dr. Heger says that accepting sexual harassment will occur can help you be more prepared for it. That way you can respond right when it happens, which she suggests doing in lieu of letting the situation cool.
“When I was in medical school,” she says. “I decided that harassment was going to be a given, and that I was going to respond in a way that made it impossible for them to come back at me.” She says that even when it happened in front of other colleagues, she didn’t let that stop her from calling someone out. “Women would come up and thank me afterward.”
Don’t assume it’s an isolated incident
To that end, Pratt and Dr. Heger urge women to assume they’re one person in a line of others, and that this isn’t the first time this person has crossed a line. As Pratt explains, “For anyone who’s exhibiting aggressive behavior, that’s probably a pattern for them in many areas of his life.” She suggests you use that as a reason to confront the situation head on, rather than ignore it. “This is probably not the first time he’s heard something like this, and it’s something he needs to continue hearing.”
Here is how the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines workplace harassment, and here are six important things to know about it. Whether or not you think someone’s behavior directly violates the law or your company’s employee handbook, it’s important that you speak up if you feel uncomfortable in you workplace. RAINN’s 24-hour sexual harassment hotline can be reached at 1-800-656-HOPE.