Last night I attended a @GirlGeeksTO discussion about sexual harassment at work. The room held 100 diverse women in tech, largely at the earlier stages of their career and keen to continue to develop their professional relationships and skills to advance in their fields. The #metoo movement has dramatically highlighted on all of our social feeds how prevalent the issue of sexual harassment remains. Last night was no different.
I participated on a panel that dug into what to do when faced with workplace sexual harassment. Moderated by Melissa Nightingale of Raw Signal, my fellow panelists were HR professional Lorena Pacheco Scott at Ritual and Globe & Mail journalist Kiran Rana. We followed a panel led by Mic Berman and Tara Rhodes of Grossman Dorland, who had kicked off the event with tooling people up for handling workplace sexual harassment.
What struck me as the most frustrating aspect of the evening was that there were a hundred ambitious young women in the room who still have to divert all this energy to the issue. Women still have to spend all this time finding champions and mentors outside their male-dominated organizations, spend time being annoyed and distracted by the sexualization of our success, sorting through whether strategically this is misconduct we should call out or should we quietly leave to not kill our career and be blacklisted too early, spending time figuring out how to deal with disappointing and unsupportive responses to complaints, and analysing whether this comment, physical interaction or event is sexual harassment directed at me or just a third party act that got me caught in the cross-fire.
All of this leaves women with no option but to be excellent performers every day, to protect against the reality of sexual harassment that otherwise devalues women in the workplace. Do we still really have to earn our way in? Are we not at the point where we can all start at the same position as the other half of the species with the assumption that we have an equal right to be there, and that advancements, raises, and success have nothing to do with sexual favours or fitting into the sexualized stereotypes of how women should be.
I was heartbroken at some of the stories of blatant sexism that is still alive and well for women entering the workforce. And I don’t mean that intangible kind of sexism where you’re not sure if the subtle comment was bad social skills, a failed attempt at humour, or a genuinely held belief that women are less valued. I mean full-out sexualizing women and seeing them as sexual objects first, and as developers, engineers, professionals second (if at all).
I’m in my mid-40s and thought I was the bridge generation between the explicit sexism women endured before me and the enlightened world enjoyed by those after me because of all the battles fought. We’re not there yet. Women still have to waste so much time thinking about this issue, thinking about how to navigate a world still full of male bosses, broculture and colleagues who see the skills and talent second.
What were all the male colleagues doing last night? Certainly not worrying about how to read and not misread workplace signals and actions all day long, nor tooling up to face aggressors, nor learning the HR and legal landscape to file complaints of sexual harassment.
There are of course many male champions in many workplaces, and there were some male allies at the event last night. Many men do stick their head out for their female colleagues. And I definitely think we’ve come a very long way since even the 1980’s – in the full course of thousands of years of women working, a few decades is quick.
But not quick enough. The economy will benefit from the brains and skills that stay engaged and fully part of developing the future’s technology, and the fundamental illogical and unfair pressure put on half the species to figure it all out needs to end.
The upside? A room full of a hundred women were making a whole bunch of lemonade out of their lemons: developing friendships, mentors, advocacy skills, learning about other workplaces and tech developments, networking, developing social & EQ skills, learning some HR law and being supported by peers. How can this not be an incredible foundation upon which to build a thriving economy that includes all genders?