All women have a sexual harassment story

I had the extreme pleasure of having dinner this past week with over a dozen women in the start-up sector.  90% of the women are the dinner are the female investors who any founder would want to get in front of with hopes that they fund their companies.  Over the years, I am happy to say that many of these women have become my friends.

I knew everyone at the dinner but not everyone knew each other.  So we began the dinner telling our name, where we reside and a personal sexual harassment story.  I wish I could say that not everyone had one but the reality is every single one of us did and then some.

Some of us reflected on what had happened to them and what they would do differently if it happened the next time. That is the key to change.  We can no longer be afraid of speaking out and calling someone out when it happens.  Just like Emma Sulkowicz carried a mattress around Columbia University to directly amplify her voice towards someone who she had accused of sexual harassment, the women at the top of the investment world need to do the same thing.  The women at the top of every field need to do the same thing.  All of these women should be able to stand up and tell their story so that others can feel empowered to tell theirs too.

If women are no longer silent then men will curb their atrocious behavior because they understand that the chances of someone will be vocal is a given.  It is high time we stop pushing this behavior under the rug and publicly point out sexual harassment the moment it happens.  That is the hardest part.  Most flounder, walk out of the room and miss the moment and of course, they do because it is terrible and uncomfortable.  Here are some suggestions.  Muster up the courage to look at them directly and say “I am going to pretend you did not say that” or “Did you just say that to me?” or “You must be kidding me” and then a follow-up with “don’t you ever talk to me like that again or I am going to sue you for sexual harassment and have you fired” and you could throw a few fuck’s in there and definitely say it loudly so someone else hears what just went down.  It is awful and it shouldn’t happen but it does.  The more we push back and speak up, the chances that change will happen are almost guaranteed.

Comments (Archived):

  1. Pranay Srinivasan

    Men also use the dog whistle of #NotAllMen and some point to the 1% of false / fake accusations..Usually its the assholes out there who do that, but I see lots of things changing here.Men should be paranoid in the workplace about even subtle gestures and / or behavior that makes women uncomfortable.Takes a lot of social awareness and self awareness to avoid slipping into subconscious chauvinism / patriarchy.

  2. Kirsten Lambertsen

    Of course, I agree. But I think the tricky part here is that women who feel secure and safe enough to speak up (further along in their careers, having an established reputation, clout, and agency) are less likely to be the target of harassment. Harassers target women who are more likely to be in a weaker position.It may require those ‘safer’ women to actively reach out (like me and you and many commenters here), check in on the women in their universe who are more likely to be targeted, and provide proactive outreach, support and mentoring. Greet new hires (even if not in your team) and say, “Welcome! This is a great place to work. But, if you ever feel uncomfortable, that you’ve been harassed or targeted because of your gender, I want you to know that I’m here for you. I make this offer to all new women in the company. You have my pledge that everything said between us will be confidential until you may decide to take action. My primary concern is your well being.” Something like that.Even thinking about women who are just introverts by nature. They don’t even speak up to ask for the salt, much less to call out a harasser. These people are often overlooked. They need contact from people who will give them the space to communicate in a way that they’re comfortable.

    1. Skopos NYC

      Kirsten makes a great point. In my 20s, I was the sole woman working at a firm. I’d share certain experiences or comments I received with my Mom at the time and she’d politely say “that sounds like sexism” or “that sounds like a really inappropriate come-on.” At the time, I didn’t understand what that meant or how to handle it. Now that I’m older and a little more experienced, I totally get it and (hope) I would handle the situation much differently. It’s also a topic we discuss in female friend circles. Watching / Hearing how other female role models handle themselves in tricky situations is a big inspiration, as well as creating an awareness and safe space to discuss possible infringements is key.@gothamgal:disqus thanks for always bringing the tougher topics to the forefront of our minds.

    2. Anne Libby

      I’d also say (late to the conversation) that there are a lot of men out there who see things happen and fail to call them out. It can’t just fall to women to solve this one.Your comment here gives me pause to think about the men who may feel blameless because they’re not harrassers/abusers (like one of the commenters on this post.) Yet many of them have seen things happen, and remained silent. Some of them may simply be uncomfortable; they may not know what to do, So they do nothing. Their silence may be seen, and sometimes is, tacit acceptance. (e.g. Billy Bush.)To the exchange between @disqus_BMhpaK044n:disqus and @gothamgal:disqus, it’s not just “men who abuse,” but “men who abuse and other male bystanders.”

  3. Ole Jakob Thorsen

    I am not a native English speaker. I understand exactly what you are talking about and why you do. But, even though I think I get it, I am not sure how to interpret when you refer to “men”. Even though I am not an expert in English grammar, I would be more comfortable if you referred to “men who abuse women” rather than “men” in general. Like many other men, I have never – and have no intention – to abuse women,

    1. Gotham Gal

      Fair response. I will do that in the future.

  4. Sarah

    I am in this dynamic right now with first clients after more than a decade of radically imbalanced full time parenting. It began with continuous comments about my attractiveness and escalated with texts/phone messages. Admitting that I pretended to ignore it all, hoping it would dissipate, and carried on with my work as if oblivious. However, I was intensely aware and recorded every incident in a book. I was also anxious (and honestly felt vulnerable) to complete the contract and be paid. The client chose to speak up about his sexual attraction and intentions and was open that he felt could not focus in close proximity to me. It was an awkward conversation all round. He had hoped that it would be more flattering.My approach was to first to thank him for his honesty and second to be very clear why he was crossing significant personal/legal boundaries. It was an eye opener for him to have an honest discussion & to feel respected while being rejected. I know that he has been effective in his techniques (flirting, overt sexuality) to engage women – many women. It was my goal to break the reward cycle with dignity – still to be determined if I achieved. In the past, I have been “hard nosed” in similar situations & it has always resulted in me being on the losing end of the situation i.e. not getting paid/promoted/believed. In this case, I took a long term view and wanted to retain the business relationship.In turn, my client has indicated he will work with me again (at my discretion) and will likely pass on my name to other prospects. Am not certain the the way I handled this would be effective in every situation. This approach required far less energy than me being aggressive/ assertive. It would be rewarding for me to hear that the client has adjusted his behaviour with other women as well and I intend to ask him that question. I assume that I re-calibrated the respect and power – to be determined.

    1. Gotham Gal


    2. Anne Libby

      You did one thing that we can take a lesson from — and that’s to keep “contemporaneous notes.” (Another lesson to take from Jim Comey is to share the notes with a trusted friend at the time, so that the “why didn’t she tell someone” has a “but she did” answer.)Thankfully, you didn’t have to use them. And I hope you got paid.

      1. Sarah

        Thank you and yes I did get paid.The note taking is significant and was useful for me to see the pattern/escalation. Another tip (from my University days and a professor situation) is to ensure that the notes are in a bound book then use registered mail (i.e date stamped and sealed) to send that book to your trusted person. Easier now with email/texts. When and if the harasser resurfaces in your life years later (as one of mine did) or creates the same dynamic with someone else – you have your notes with the metadata properly archived.In follow-up conversations the client told me he felt I was the solution for his personal life because he was so relieved/impressed about the business & software problems that I solved. He felt understood and that I was a good counsellor. Very similar to what I have been told by other men when I was their project manager. I often see men struggling with the meshing of their personal/professional/sexual worlds and behaving without any sensitivity as to how the other person is experiencing the situation. The word “struggling” is here because their behaviours are often personally/professionally/sexually rewarded …. until they are not. When the reward cycle is halted, then comes confusion, excuse making and I hope some learning/adjusting. TBDAdvice from a friend & a counsellor concurred that “we are dealing with humans” & most (not all) deserve one tiny window for a soft emotional landing & the opportunity to make amends before switching to the hammer approach. **Recommending the direct to hammer approach if there is any physical touching or aggression**. What I did in this case also gave me a tiny window to educate my client and lay the groundwork that I trust will protect the female employee that I advised him to hire. Will be following up with the employee for certain and I will not be silent.The contract was sporadic over an 8 month period and I was distracted by other work & life issues. However, I definitely chose to put my head in the sand at the outset. I wish I had spoken up sooner and been clear that I was more than uncomfortable with the behaviour.Btw – these conversations are why I always read the Gotham Girl and the comments.

        1. Gotham Gal

          Keep reading!

        2. Anne Libby

          Oh, good. And I salute you for your masterful ability to manage the human side of things with sensitivity while respecting your own boundary. Brava.

  5. Twain Twain

    Yesterday, I read a Recode interview with Maha Ibrahim of Canaan Partners: “I’ve been on panels where male investors have said, ‘We feel like women shoot for the moon, not the stars. We feel like women are not as ambitious as men,’” she added. “And they’re using that as an example, ‘Gosh, there is no female Mark Zuckerberg.’Today, I read about GE’s tribute at Grand Central Station to the amazing ambition of female scientists, inventors and engineers. So, of course, I’m sharing this link everywhere.

  6. Jeremy Robinson

    I remember the Gay Advocates slogan during the AIDS epidemic in the 80s and 90s I at first found shocking: Silence = Death. Not quite death here but the Silence= Defeat dynamic seems ring true.