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How to Prevent Sexism in the Workplace

When I was 21 years old, I landed an internship with a well-known corporation that I won't name but everyone in the world has heard of it.

I was eager to get inside access at how this company operates, not to mention the impressive bullet point this put on my resume. I knew this was the experience of a life-time. I was hired as a paid intern on their Research and Development team for seven weeks. And each day I went to work I had a blast. Except for my very last day.

The team I was a part of was a fun group of young colleagues. They included me as one of their own. I participated on their softball team after work. I went jet-skiing with them on the weekends. We went to concerts together as a group and drank beer with each other at happy hour. They let me in and I was excited to be "in".

There's a certain safety with an intern. Everyone confided in me. I knew the inside dirty secrets of their lives. Who was sleeping with whom and who secretly hated who. To me, it was a great learning experience of how fun a corporate team can be. For them, I was the non-threatening young intern that everyone wanted to hang out with and let loose around. It was a win-win for all! But my wild ride had to eventually end and after seven weeks it was my last day.

My supervisor tried to convince me to stay longer, but I knew I had to return to college finish my degree then see what path life had for me. I spent my last day, walking around the giant corporate office handing out greeting cards to say goodbye to my new-found friends. Most gave a me a handshake. Some a high five, and a few gave me a hug. Then with a smile and great memories to last a lifetime I was ready to part ways. This was before the age of cell-phones and social media, so when you said goodbye to someone you knew it was unlikely you would ever see them again. And with that in mind, as I was about to head out the front door, I remembered the Marketing team upstairs.

The Marketing team was full of thirty-something single guys. They were a wild bunch that I had barely interacted with, except for a few laughs together at happy hour once or twice.

I instinctively knew they were the "players" of the company and I stayed away from them. Yet, I figured it would be unprofessional to at least not say goodbye in person, so I ran up the stairs to give them a quick fair-well.

One of the men, a tall Steven Seagal look-alike, invited me into his office when he heard it was my last day. I smiled and told him how much fun I had working there and thanked him for all his help. He then walked closer to me, towering over me about 8 inches. He was a big guy. Then he turned and pinned me against the wall and moved in to try and kiss me… on the lips. "Whoa!" "Stop!" "What are you doing?" "Get off me!" I said, trying to squirm out from under him. As soon as I broke free, I quickly walked down the stairs, out the front door and told no one.

What's the point of telling anyone I thought? It was my last day. I didn't want to be known as the "problem intern" after everything went so smoothly up until that point. Besides, I rationalized that since he never actually landed the kiss, did it even matter? I chose to let it go. And to be honest, I probably wasn't that startled by it at the time. There were guys in college who tried that sort of thing (or worse). Yet, I can tell you to this day, I never forgot that moment or his face and this was over 20 years ago.

Today, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace. But let's get real, an "Act" doesn't mean these behaviors from men have changed at all. Sexual harassment exists across all professions, positions, and in every culture.

What actually defines sexual harassment?

I talk about stories like this in more detail in my book Someone You Know, to drive home the point that people who try to bully or harass you are more likely to be someone you know, not a stranger. Just like me and the Steven Seagal look-alike. He was not a stranger.

Most of us know that sexual assault is when a person forces or coerces you to perform a sexual act without your consent. And yes, in this case Mr. Steven Seagal (look-alike) may have tried to assault me but luckily, I was quick-witted enough to turn my head and slither out from under his height in time.

Sexual harassment however, is a term that is overused and misunderstood in our society. Basically, it's any unwelcome sexual advance. That includes comments, groping, threats, implied favors, anything that makes the workplace uncomfortable for a person to do their job.

Here are some examples

A male coworker comments how tight your sweater is.
Unwanted touching, flirting, displaying of pornographic images, or repeated requests for dates.
Several employees joking about a sexually offensive movie they saw on the weekend using explicit language in your presence.
A manager making demeaning comments about a female worker to his colleagues.

Here’s what I want you to keep in mind

Sexual harassment (or assault) can occur to any gender-identified person. Although the overwhelming majority of claims that most often occur are men harassing women. Every woman I know has a story.

It also happens in same sex situations. And it can happen at all levels in the organization; including employees trying to harass their supervisor.

Enough is Enough!

In the workplace harassment is sometimes more discreet but not always. We have a responsibility to keep an eye and ear out for any type of discrimination around us and to speak up to let the person know it will not be tolerated. Supervisors and managers need to invoke a "No Harassment" policy where it's safe for an employee to come forward with a complaint, and then take all complaints seriously. Educating employees on what harassment is on an annual basis is important and having a system in place to take actions on the offense. In some states, this training is already mandatory by law. In California for example, businesses with fifty or more employees are required to conduct sexual harassment training for 2 hours, every 2 years.

In my twenties, I wasn't aware of the laws or rights that I had to stop this sort of thing. Or even how to deal with it on an emotional level. Now of course I know better. This is why it's important to educate every person that you know that this behavior is intolerable.

If you or someone you know experiences workplace harassment, discrimination, or sexism please reach out to me. My coaching programs work with women to learn strategic action steps to protect and assert yourself to end harassment behaviors in the workplace or elsewhere.

In support of you,


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