If there’s any doubt that attitudes toward sexism and harassment are changing, recent news should have women everywhere feeling a little bit better. From Taylor Swift winning her sexual assault case against DJ David Mueller to Fox News firing Bill O’Reilly over harassment allegations, what was tolerated in the past is no longer brushed under the rug.
While these cases show improvement in justice for women, they’re also a reminder that these kinds of things still happen—and not just to celebrities. Even though stories of women standing up against sexism and harassment abound in headlines, sometimes what we really need is a reminder of what it looks like to stand up for yourself in real life, especially when harassment happens to women just like us.
I had the pleasure of speaking with four different women, with a variety of careers and ages. We talked about their reactions to sexism in real life, in real time. What interested me most was that the majority of their stories were not about outright sexism. No one called them a “skirt” or grabbed any part of their bodies (except for one source). Instead, they faced everyday one-liners that most women have learned to let bounce off of them. In these cases, the women chose to speak up, and that’s something we can all be inspired by.
Here are their stories.
He said, “You’re married to someone with a good job; you don’t need a raise.”
Karen, Senior VP and Wealth Adviser at UBS Financial, age 55, has been working in the finance industry for thirty years. She tells me that when she started, as an assistant, only 9 percent of wealth advisers were female.
When I asked Karen about experiencing sexism in the workplace, she laughed. “This was the eighties,” she said. “It was the heyday of bringing strippers into the office to celebrate a birthday.” At her one-year review, she sat with a male adviser. “He gave me a lot of positive accolades regarding my work ethic, my values, my performance, and so on.” When it came time to discuss a raise, he looked at her and said, “You’re married to someone with a good job; you don’t need a raise.” And that was it. Karen said nothing. “I was younger, he was my boss, I didn’t have the self-confidence I needed to say something.”
Fast forward to 2017 and Karen—now a senior manager herself—doesn't hesitate to speak up. “I have a quote that sits under my computer every day to inspire me,” Karen explains. “It reads: ‘Any furious shift towards more sustainable societies has to include gender equality.’” It’s a quote from Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand. When a male colleague came into her office, he read the sign and laughed. “He said, ‘That’s so cute you have that there.’”
She looked at him and said, “It isn’t funny at all. It isn’t cute or sweet.” She told him that the quote was inspirational and to belittle the words was offensive. She reminded him that he has two daughters. “What was important is that I spoke up, I said something, and we’re still friends.”
He called her a “a tall drink of water.”
In some cases, it doesn’t take decades to find your voice and feel comfortable. What Hayley, an adaptive needs consultant, age 30, has found particularly disturbing is that “men feel they can make remarks about a woman’s appearance at any time." Even if intended to be, it isn't a compliment, when women want their work to be appreciated.
Hayley describes herself as tall with red hair, and she says these physical features draw the attention of men. “One time, there was a man who came into my place of work and, though he came in to discuss business, he veered off topic.” Hayley says he had looked her up and down, calling her “a tall drink of water.” When he continued to ask about their services, he implied she could sell anything: “With beauty like that, I’m sure you can handle it.” Hayley didn’t hold back.
She said, "Yeah, there are brains there, too.” The man tried to backpedal, but Hayley didn’t sacrifice her values. “I could tell he wanted me to tell him it was OK and it was fine, but I wasn’t going to give him that satisfaction.”
The accounting department tried to blow her off—but when her husband called, “just like that, the mistake was corrected.”
Jill, President and Founder of JBB Education Consulting, age 64, told me stories from her personal life—the everyday nuisances that are much harder for a woman. She says, “Sexism now isn’t as overt. It is these minor things that we see buried under the surface.”
Jill told me when she was younger, she experienced a billing issue with a landscaping company. The accounting department tried to blow her off, so she had her then husband call, and “just like that, the mistake was corrected.”
“When you are young, you don’t think about it. And then I woke up one day and I was like, ‘Whoa!’” Now, Jill runs her own company and has grown to feel more empowered to speak up for herself. When everyday sexism strikes, she doesn’t hold back. When a mechanic worked on her car and the same part broke down one week later, she went back and wouldn’t let them walk away until they took responsibility and fixed their mistakes. “We still live in a male-dominated world, and there is no doubt about that. It seems easier to have a man speak for you, but you don’t need to.”
“Was there no man available for the trip?” they asked.
An anonymous engineering project manager, whom we will call “Sarah,” age 34, had an interesting story to relay. To start, she is the only woman in her office—which is nothing new to her. When she studied engineering, women made up just 16 percent of her class. But when Sarah traveled to Nepal for a business trip, she walked into the meeting room and before she jumped into the conversation with their clients, the room of men asked her why she was there.
“Was there no man available for the trip?” they asked. Sarah quickly responded, “I am the project manager for this job, and I am the most qualified person to represent this project. That is why I am here.” While they tried to accept it, it was often amusing to them that she was there at all. She also mentioned that, in this case, cultural difference played a role.
Throughout the years, Sarah has developed different tools that help her to not only feel but act empowered in a field where there are very few seats at the table for women. She seeks out other female engineers whom she can advocate for and be advocated for in return. She thinks it's also important to find men to champion you. She says she absolutely allows herself to behave differently than men rather than trying to fit a mold. Instead of trying to imitate the ideas of men around her, she understands that the diversity in her opinions is what makes her so valuable and helps her to earn the respect of all her colleagues.