Sexual Harassment At Work- Why Women Stay Silent

I once managed an account that was the largest and most prestigious that my firm had ever won. When I got the assignment, I was so excited for the opportunities this account would bring, so long as I managed the project well. The project was challenging, for sure, and involved a much higher level of project and client management than most other engagements. Still, I was ready and willing to prove that not only could I handle this, I could kill it too.

And kill it I did. I convinced the client to budget millions of dollars for research, an amount that at the time was unheard of at my company. To kick off the project, we took a week-long trip to meet in-person with various stakeholders. I felt a little anxious about the trip, because it involved a ton of client management, and so much was at stake. I had interacted with our client contact a number of times, but spending a week together is very different than making small talk before meetings. Still, I felt confident I could make a good impression and show the client how well we could handle the project.

About a month before we were set to leave, I received an e-mail from our client contact asking which hotel my colleague and I had booked. We went back-and-forth on e-mail because the hotel we had chosen appeared sold out, so I suggested some alternative hotels close by. My client then replied, over work e-mail: “If those are sold out too, I guess I’ll just have to stay in your room.”

I remember I was traveling for another client at the time and was sitting in a hotel lobby when I received that e-mail. I audibly gasped, my body tensed up, and for a good two minutes I sat frozen in my seat. I couldn’t believe he had sent an e-mail like that, and so brazenly to boot. What was to stop me from forwarding what is clearly a sexually suggestive e-mail to my boss or his boss? Well that’s the thing—he knew I wouldn’t do anything about that e-mail, because speaking up would be career suicide. While this client did not have direct power or authority over me in the same way a direct boss or supervisor would, his influence over me and our firm was enormous.

All day, I went back and forth in my head about how to respond to his e-mail. I wanted to write him back and say that I would hope we can act professionally toward each other during the course of this engagement, but I was afraid of the repercussions of possibly offending him. I considered telling my boss about the situation, but decided against that too—though I had no doubt that my boss would take the e-mail very seriously and sympathize with me, his response would most likely be to take me off the account, for my own “comfort.” There is no way our firm would walk away from this client because of one suggestive e-mail.

So I ended up telling no one at work and going on the trip. I had considered making up some excuse for backing out of the trip and sending another colleague in my place, but I didn’t want to lose the opportunity that this trip meant for my career. So, apprehensively, I went.

Throughout the first part of the trip, I made sure I was never alone with the client and talked at length about my partner at home to make clear that I was in a serious, committed relationship. He acted professionally, and I never felt that he made any advances toward me, which was such a relief. In fact, half way through the trip I questioned whether or not I had read too far into that e-mail in the first place.

But it turns out, I didn’t. On the last night of the trip, the client tried to kiss me in the elevator. My co-worker and I took him out to a lavish dinner that night, followed by drinks at a lounge. We had been out for hours, and both my client and my co-worker had imbibed heavily. I was so surprised my co-worker would get intoxicated around a client, but then I remembered that as a man, he can do things that I simply cannot do. The client was drunk too, and he and my co-worker bonded throughout the night and had a great time together. If anything, getting drunk probably elevated my co-worker’s standing with our client.

At the end of the night, my co-worker went back to his room and left my client and me alone. When we got into the elevator, he turned to me and said with a tipsy smile, “You know, it was really wonderful having you on this trip.” I agreed, and the next thing I know he starts to dive in for a kiss. I pretended to drop my purse to avert him, and it worked. Right then, the doors to the elevator had opened, and I rushed out, yelling a hasty good night at the client before I booked it to my hotel room.

Returning home, I was a nervous wreck that the client might sabotage me if he was offended by my rejection. He could easily make up some excuse for why he didn’t want to work with me or preferred to work with someone else and my firm would happily oblige him without question. But luckily, that didn’t happen. I continued to work with him, and our relationship remained professionally strong. Did I get queasy every time I had to go to his office for a meeting? YES. Did my heart race every time I saw his name in my inbox? YUP. Continuing to work with him was very uncomfortable, but the consequences of speaking up about his harassment were not ones I was willing to deal with either.

Some people might say that what my client did was not harassment because I didn’t tell him to stop or let him know his advances were unwelcome. All I can say is what I feel, and I did feel violated because of our relative positions and the immense power he had over me and my career. And I knew that as much as I may have been a valuable employee at my firm, I wasn’t worth the millions of dollars my firm would lose had we given up the account because of his behavior.

Much time has passed, but I still think about this experience, and I’m angry that the choices I had to deal with the situation were not choices at all. And unfortunately, I am not alone. A recent study showed that 1 in 3 women ages 18-34 have been sexually harassed at work. And like me, very few women report instances of harassment, citing fear of retaliation as the reason for staying silent.

Workplace sexual harassment exacts a significant toll not only on women, but on all of us. Employers pay for harassment through lower productivity, increased absenteeism, and job turnover. Women are a critical component of the economy, and when women succeed, our country succeeds. It is imperative that we recognize sexual harassment as not a women’s problem, but as an economic problem that affects everyone.

9 thoughts on “Sexual Harassment At Work- Why Women Stay Silent”

  1. Very well written article. I’m sure this happens to a lot of women and men in the workplace and is dealt with in much the same way.

  2. Sexual Harassment laws are in place because of real harassment. An attempted drunken kiss barely qualifies as anything to feel victimized about. When I started working in the 70’s sexual harassment was REAL and that is why there are now laws. I am not every woman, but let me share some of the things that happened to me, which is why there are laws now. A pizza joint I worked at while in college required split shifts. Two hours at lunch, two hours at dinner. The short fat mid 60’s owner would, every single day, suggest sex after lunch. Every single day attempt to pinch nipples, pat my behind, ask for oral sex. EVERY SINGLE DAY. I lasted a month. No amount of “No.” or “Stop that!” helped. When I mentioned this to the college employment group that sent me there, they said “yeah, he has a problem with that”..and sent another college girl there to replace me. In a professional office, a male coworker was with a bunch of us at lunch. When we were paying, he paid for my lunch beforehand, without my knowledge, until it came time to pay. Back at the office, I said thank you and offered to pay my portion. He grabbed me, pulled me into an empty office and said “NOW you can pay me back for lunch..” and kissed me while groping my body. THAT, my dear, is why there are laws. Those are two of dozens of incidents. Work environments were different back then, and women dressed conservatively, were not vulgar, on social media, or trying to be men. Men just assumed we were there to be their “office wife” and that they could freely talk about our bodies or touch us. When you add alcohol and going out for the evening, professionalism is changed. It may be an obligation to do so. However, the part of you that is professional and female should know that being alone with someone, in a close environment (the elevator) who has already let it be known (mildly) that they are attracted to you, not a good plan. Take a different elevator. Leave earlier, or later. Have some sense of self preservation and common sense. Don’t be so easily offended by things. Inappropriate behavior on his part? Yes. Sexual harassment? Hardly.

  3. Editor:

    I would just like to start off by saying how impressed I am that you have spoken up about this topic. It’s inspiring and very admirable in all honesty! It’s admirable in the sense because I’m sure you were aware of the backlash that would occur. Gender roles and rape culture are a very prominent issues. I’m sure you have received lots of praise saying that you are courageous to speak about these issues, but also received backlash from those who are victim blaming. I can see that misogynists would tell you that women in a workplace should be ready for some form of sexual attention. In a perfect world, however, women or anyone should not prepare for things like that! Unfortunately, they do and in most cases they aren’t able to speak up about it in fear of potentially losing their job and further careers.
    There is an activity we did in social psychology that I found interesting and relates to the topic of victim blaming. It’s called The Wife and the Highwayman:
    Once upon a time, a husband and a wife lived together in a part of the city separated by a river from the places of employment, shopping and entertainment. The husband had to work nights. Each evening he left his wife and took the ferry to work, returning in the morning.
    The wife soon grew tired of the arrangement. Restless and lonely, she would take the next ferry into town and develop relationships with a series of lovers. Anxious to preserve her marriage, she always returned home before her husband. In fact, her relationships were always limited. When they threatened to become too intense, she would precipitate a quarrel with her current lover and begin a new relationship.
    One night she caused such a quarrel with a man we’ll call Lover #1. He slammed the door in her face, and she started back to the ferry. Suddenly she realized that she had forgotten to bring money for her return fare. She swallowed her pride and returned to Lover #1’s apartment. But Lover #1 was vindictive and angry because of the quarrel. He slammed the door on his former lover, leaving her with no money. She remembered that a previous lover, who we shall call Lover #2, lived just a few doors away. Surely he would give her the ferry fare. However, Lover #2 was still so hurt from their old quarrel that he, too, refused her the money.
    Now the hour was late and the woman was getting desperate. She rushed down to the ferry and pleaded with the ferryboat captain. He knew her as a regular customer. She asked if he could let her ride free and if she could pay the next night. But the captain insisted that rules were rules and that he could not let her ride without paying the fare.
    Dawn would soon be breaking, and her husband would be returning from work. The woman remembered that there was a free bridge about a mile further on. But the road to the bridge was a dangerous one, known to be frequented by highwaymen. Nonetheless, she had to get home, so she took the road. On the way a highwayman stepped out of the bushes and demanded her money. She told him she had none. He seized her. In the ensuing tussle, the highwayman stabbed the woman, and she died.

    This ends our story.
    There have been six characters: the HUSBAND, the WIFE, LOVER#1, LOVER#2, the FERRYBOAT CAPTAIN, and the HIGHWAYMAN.
    As a class, we were told to go up to the board and vote for who was most responsible for the incident. The ratio was completely unproportionate. 80% of the class had voted that the Wife was most responsible. However, in reality, the highwayman was most responsible. It didn’t matter what the wife did to end up on the bridge because the it was the highwayman’s choice to harass and kill her. Our psychology teacher made sure to emphasize the point that this is the reason rape victims do not come forward. The victim’s past will come into question and it is human instinct to judge those past actions. If a prostitute were to come forward and talk about her sexual harassment, the horrible truth is that the jury will most likely say things such as, “You work for sex” and “You should get an actual job” or “You shouldn’t have put yourself in that position in the first place”. I’m so passionate about ending this type of ideology and I appreciate you sharing your story that brings light onto this issue. Thank you for making the time to read this email. Keep doing what you’re doing!

    Thank you,

    1. Thank you so much Larissa! Your words mean so much. Unfortunately, I am not at all surprised by the results of your class exercise– for many, it is much easier to blame the survivor than the perpetrator.

      Again, I really appreciate you writing and hope to keep in touch!


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