by: Minda Harts, Founder, The Memo
There has been a lot of discussion around sexual harassment in the workplace. Many women in the tech industry have come forward to share their stories of investors crossing the line. Unfortunately, I know that so many women have dealt with unwanted advances at some point in their lives. I happened to know one of the women who recently told her story in the New York Times. I remember looking on Twitter - there were women applauding her, women criticizing her, and women who stayed out of the conversation entirely. There is a lot of stigma around “telling your truth."
Like many of us, I have encountered unwanted advances in the workplace, and there were so many times I tried to sweep those advances under the rug or convinced myself they "didn’t mean any harm!"
For many years, I bought into the dangerous and crippling ideology of “they don’t mean any harm.” I remember being a young girl and hearing my relatives say, "oh so and so doesn’t mean any harm." When I got to college, friends would say the same, and this mentality intensified when I entered the workforce. At what point do we say some of these individuals do mean harm, and acknowledge that not everyone means well. Sexual harassment comes in various forms. Just because you aren’t thrust on the desk in the corner office, doesn’t make it any less harmful than one of your coworkers telling you the things they want to do to you because you’re so petite.
When I was in college, I was 90 pounds. In college, boys would pick me up for no reason and without my consent. I could be talking to a girlfriend and next thing you know I am scooped up in some football players arms and twirled around like a cabbage patch kid. I hated it every, single, time, but I would chalk it up to, "they don’t mean any harm." The damage came when I would tell them I didn't like being picked up and they wouldn’t listen or wouldn't immediately put me down. I do believe that many of them didn’t mean any harm, but it was unsolicited, and after the first time, this situation starts to shake hands with harassment.
In my mid 20’s and even in my 30’s, I didn’t understand how to navigate workplace politics when harassment happened to me. I only knew what I’d observed from the women that I’d seen come forward, and it rarely ended well for them. I think back to all the times I allowed someone to take my power away by not speaking up. On the flip side, I never wanted to be deemed as “that girl," but coming forward is the hardest first step -- one that is brave and demonizing all at the same time!
Sexual harassment in the workplace often finds a way to single out the victim and protect the accuser. We have seen this time and time again. Not only have you been harassed, but now you might have to sacrifice everything you’ve worked hard for, because the stigma will chase you down like a train. You find yourself in a rock and hard place, and it makes it that much easier to use "they don’t mean any harm" as your crutch.
As a culture, we must stop telling boys and girls, men and women that people don’t mean harm when it makes them feel uncomfortable. We must start validating our feelings and stop allowing others to cover up bad behavior like a band-aid. We should no longer relinquish our power to others. If it feels harmful to us, then it’s no one’s place to play Judge Judy and tell us who actually means harm and who doesn’t. No man or woman should be worried if today is the day their colleague will cross the line.
We should all work to create a better environment when situations like these arise. Victims shouldn’t feel bad about going to their Human Resources office and reporting a problem. None of us should be comfortable knowing that one of our colleagues might be going through this situation, and feel as though they have no place to turn. Sometimes we can be complicit and throw everyone in this one size fits all box of "meaning no harm," just because that wasn’t our experience. Creating a workplace culture of silence is harmful. Future harassers or assaulters will get away with meaning no harm, if we don’t call a spade a spade!
My hope is that your story or another story will inspire others to speak up and that, as a culture, we stop giving people a pass to misbehave, solely based on someone “meaning well.” We can no longer give out sexual harassment badges of honor because the harassment doesn’t end in rape.
I felt it was important to address sexual harassment running a career platform for women. I am sorry if you have been in this position and didn’t feel supported. Please know that as a community we are here to support you, and we are working on a career boot camp that addresses how to successfully navigate sexual harassment; this is a tool we should all have in our toolkit.