sexual-harrassment-advice

Sexual Harassment Advice from The Meanest Woman Alive

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I first came across Linda Smith, Esq. on Facebook where her “Meanest Woman Alive” posts featuring lionesses, lightning storms, and female super heroes inspire women to embrace their inner strength and intelligence and put it to work in male-dominated environments. Her new book Smashing Glass and Kicking Ass gives no-nonsense advice to women on how to rise in the corporate ranks based on her 40-year legal career.

Smith knows what she is talking about, having matched wits with Michael Dell and Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone, led a team of 200+ lawyers to beat Intel in a multibillion-dollar antitrust cases all over the world, successfully defended Exxon in another giant case that questioned the company’s cleanup efforts in Alaska, defeated a class action suit of one million customers of the corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce and walked the red carpet at the Golden Globes with George Clooney and Viola Davis. She’s also given back by handling pro bono cases all the way up to the Supreme Court, most recently when she represented immigrant mothers of U.S. citizen children facing deportation. In short, Smith is the woman you want to call when you’re in a legal quagmire.

In the throws of the Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh hearings and the continuing #MeToo movement, my interest was peaked.  I asked myself: “What would The Meanest Woman Alive advise me (or any over-40 woman) about dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace?”


Reality of Sexual Harrassment

If you think sexual harassment is a young woman’s concern, think again.  A 2017 CNBC survey revealed a percentage of sexual harassment victims by age group. Of the women who reported being victims (27% of women surveyed, though some surveys state over half of all working women experience it) the poll showed:

39% are Baby Boomers

36% are Gen X

25% are Millennials

While Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states it is unlawful to retaliate against an individual for opposing employment practices that discriminate based on sex or for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or litigation, many women do *not* take action against the perpetrator. Mainly because retaliation is so prevalent and because the accused is rarely held accountable.

So, how would a badass attorney like Smith handle the situation? I asked her this and a few other questions about women succeeding in male-dominated industries.

(Note: SheSpark and its contributing writers are not licensed attorneys and the information provided is not to be acted upon as legal advice. Seek counsel from a licensed attorney in your state or country for any and all legal matters.) 

I had to start with the most obvious question:

SheSpark: Why did you choose “Meanest Woman Alive” as your personal brand?

Smith: Being known as the  “Meanest Woman Alive” is a sensational brand for a top tier litigator trying bet-the-company cases for Fortune 500 clients. When billions of dollars are at stake, the client can tell its Board of Directors, “We’ve hired O’Melveny (an international firm with a deep bench of talent) lead by the  “Meanest Woman Alive.” To further enhance the impression that the client has a tough “take-no-prisoners” lead counsel, the client can show their Board the Corporate Board Magazine profile (published for Fortune 500 boards) entitled “The Meanest Woman Alive.” I am not one-speed mean or mean spirited. I view myself as a gladiator for my clients (similar to the Olivia Pope from Scandal)– professional and cordial unless the other side mistreats or is abusive to my clients or misrepresents the facts or the law (a polite way of saying that they lie) to the court. When that happens, I defend my clients and their positions with the ferocity of a mother bear guarding her cubs. 

Meanest Woman Alive

SheSpark: When you add ageism to gender bias, it seems like midlife women are doomed in most work environments. What’s the number one thing we can do to push past those barriers?

Smith: Here’s the hard truth: Gender bias in corporate America against women in leadership positions remains firmly entrenched. Despite graduating from college and professional schools and entering the workforce in equal numbers with men, females fail to make the same progress in their jobs as their male counterparts do, and that phenomenon is repeated all the way through the leadership pipeline. The number of women shrinks by about half by the middle-management level, and dwindles to a fragment when it comes to promotion to the C-suite.

Throughout the workforce, women get fired, get discouraged and quit, or settle on jobs for which they are overqualified. To push past these barriers women must stop playing by a male playbook. In business, men make the rules, and women struggle to prove we’re equal to men by “trying to outman the men” or “become a mini-man” or “beat the men at their own game.” Instead, women should capitalize on their unique advantages as women to succeed in business. We need to follow our own playbook written for women using our superior leadership skills to succeed and lead.

Study after study shows that emotional intelligence is the secret sauce for success for business leaders.  Of the 12 categories that define emotional intelligence (the critical basis for leadership), women outscore men in 11 of the categories and tie men in the 12th category. It’s not just the warm and fuzzy skills traditionally associated with women. It’s the “hard business skills” like driving for results and taking initiative. We are no longer in a “command and control” world of alpha male dominance.

In the modern communications age, women have the ability to join up intelligence (we are equally able to evaluate strategies and analytical markers), empathy, and emotion to enhance our capacity both for understanding our own personal emotions and motivations and those of others. Women can read the perceptual screens of the men, gauge the situation strategically, choose a nuanced course of action and take control.

Women are not using this advantage to our advantage. Now that we know we have this power to be great leaders—and the research to back it up—it’s time to act.

Related: Dress Codes & Women: What You Need to Know About Your Rights & “Rules”

SheSpark: In your new book Smashing Glass and Kicking Ass you talk about sexual harassment— which is a hot topic with the hearings surrounding SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh. What personal experience can you share with us on sexual harassment and the realities of holding the offender accountable?

smashing glass cover

 

Smith: When I was much younger, I already had a ferocious intelligence and the ability to use my unique feminine advantages—my emotional intelligence– to assess and strategically handle most situations. Nevertheless, I was sexually harassed countless times running the gamut from commentary about my physical appearance and demeaning sexual remarks about women in general to unwanted fondling (once, a hand at the top of my thigh under the table at a legal dinner, another time a federal judge brushing my breasts during a convention) and even threats that my career will be trashed unless I put out. In one instance when I was very junior in the firm, there was a client who was the CEO of a major Fortune 500 company who felt “entitled” to have sex with me and was not deterred by my rejection of his overtures.  Now, this was a serious client whose company paid the firm significant fees. I was realistically concerned that if I caused the client to leave the firm, I would be blamed.

The high level of the client and the monetary stakes at risk may have been larger for me than for some other women, but that makes no difference. Any  woman faced with harassment and a sense of being trapped feels the same way—demeaned, frustrated, angry, afraid. This is simply part of life for women who work. As of 2017, one of every two women reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment at work. Even that ratio is a gross understatement because a significant share of victims of sexual harassment remain silent out of fear of retaliation, worries that their co-workers will make them feel ashamed, and concern that they will be blamed.

Here’s my personal bright line.  When it comes down to unwanted sexual advances, my advice is very clear. Just like in politics, when leaders of countries “draw a red line” that means retaliation or war if crossed, I  (too) draw a red line: I will never be pressured into doling out any kind of sexual favors or sleeping with anyone. Period. If that means my job, so be it. I have a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment. And my advice is that you should, too, for at least two reasons. First, if you think sexual favors will further your career, think again. It never ends well. Second, how dare men use the power imbalance between male bosses and female subordinates to coerce women to have sex or to make women suffer humiliating, soul-crushing harassment.

In cases of sexual harassment, the onus falls totally on the woman. But women have an arsenal of resources to defend themselves. Here’s a quick summary without putting your job in jeopardy.


Our first stop is Plan A. 

If it works, an attorney won’t be necessary—you’ll be done with the harassment and be free to concentrate on what you were hired to do: your job.

There are two parts to the plan. First, be sure to document everything. Documenting the harassment is important for use in your company’s internal process, or as evidence in a case or complaint. If applicable, photograph or keep copies of any offensive material you encounter in the workplace. Keep a journal detailing instances of sexual harassment. Note the dates, the nature of relevant conversations, and the frequency of offensive encounters.

Tell other people, if possible, including personal friends and co-workers. If the man is a serial harasser, enlisting the support of other victims lends credibility to your accusations. There are instances where this is effective, as it was with Harvey Weinstein, but it usually takes a village of women to trigger a reaction from powerful men—multiple women have to speak out to embolden others to come forward until the accusations finally reach a critical mass. Then, and only then, will the men in power take the sexual harassment allegations seriously and address the harasser.

If you don’t have a village of women to help you take down your harasser, your next step is to confront him. He may not be a media mogul like Weinstein, but taking him on can loom just as large in your mind, whether he’s your direct boss or the guy who works down the hall. Hang tough. This may sound counter-intuitive, but you’d be surprised how often confronting the harasser works—if you do it right. When you face off with your harasser, you’ll be the one setting the agenda. You’ll be the one reinforcing everything you say with a strong, confident, no-bullshit demeanor.

Let’s discuss this demeanor. Confronting a sexual harasser is hard, especially if that person is your boss or your client. Because you are scared, there could be a tendency to be sweet and coy about the harassment, maybe even a little jokey. You could even inadvertently exhibit behavior that falsely allows the man to believe that what he was doing was okay. (Remember, some men will see encouragement to sexual overtures everywhere.) Resist those temptations. In order for this to work, you must be serious and firm.

Start by getting right to the point: Tell the harasser that his actions are offensive, and tell him to stop. While it may be hard to believe, telling a harasser to stop what he’s been doing is usually the most effective method of ending the behavior. Even when the harassment is obvious to you, the harasser may not be aware that his behavior is offensive. Or (and this is far more likely) he might try to pretend to be oblivious to what he’s done when he’s been confronted. Let him act as shocked as he wants; don’t buy in.

Here’s the way to confront your harasser and nail him:

• Set the location, preferably in your workplace. If there is a conference room with glass windows or if your office has glass windows, that will work. It should be where you can be seen if not overheard—not in a windowless office with the door closed.

• Do the unexpected: Name the behavior. Whatever he’s done, say it, and be specific.

• Hold the harasser accountable for his actions. Don’t make excuses for him; don’t pretend it didn’t happen. Take charge of the encounter and let him and other people know what he did. Privacy protects harassers, but visibility undermines them.

• Make honest, direct statements. Speak the truth, with no threats, no insults, no obscenities, and no appeasing verbal fluff and padding. Be serious, straightforward, and blunt.

• Demand that the harassment stop.

• Stick to your own agenda. Don’t respond to the harasser’s excuses or diversionary tactics.

• Say what you have to say, and repeat it if he persists. Remember that his behavior is the issue.

• Reinforce your statements with strong, self-respecting body language: full eye contact, head up, shoulders back, chin up, a strong, serious stance. Don’t smile. Timid, submissive body language will undermine your message.

• End the interaction on your own terms, with a strong closing statement: “You heard me. Stop the harassment now.”

This should be “Game Over.” Problem solved. And bravo to you!

But if the initial meeting or message doesn’t work, then move to Plan B and escalate your complaint to the next level of management.

 

About The Author

Thea Wood mona lisa

 

Thea Wood is the co-publisher of SheSpark.com and a certified image consultant from Austin, TX.  She is a TEDx speaker and wrote the new e-book The Intentional Makeover  and co-authored the book Socially Smart & Savvy. Thea shares styling advice at TheaWood.com, helping women create a signature style that says who they are and where they’re going.

Read more articles by Thea Wood

4 comments on “Sexual Harassment Advice from The Meanest Woman Alive

  1. So glad someone is helping this way!! Sexual harassment is such a real problem in our society and I’m glad she’s fighting – and giving us some pointers!

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