A friend of mine has been having trouble with bullying and harassment in her workplace. People with more power than she has have been using inappropriate language, limiting her access to resources, and intruding on her physical space.
Fortunately, she has an excellent coach, a woman who holds a leadership position in a male-dominated industry where there are a lot of challenging personalities. I had the pleasure of watching as the coach taught my friend how to respond to others’ aggression firmly and courageously. Look the aggressor in the eye. Speak loudly and forcefully. Use phrases like, “Stop that!”, “Go away!”, and “Don’t talk to me like that!” Use posture that makes you bigger, like standing tall, leaning forward, or slapping the table top. My friend practiced these behaviors as her coach provided encouragement and guidance.
Here’s the coolest part. My friend is three years old. The bullies are four-year-olds in her daycare program, and her coach is her mother. As I watched them interact, I thought to myself, “Heaven help the man who tries to sexually harass that young woman. He will be in for a big surprise.”
Like many others, I have been deeply troubled, although not surprised, by the recent torrent of accounts of sexual harassment in the workplace. At the same time, I have been concerned as I hear about suggested remedies for this crisis. It seems to me they fall into two categories: teaching men how to stop harassing women, and setting up systems to help women report harassment.
Don’t get me wrong — both of those remedies are vital. But in the experience of many women, the first line of defense is responding in the moment, firmly and fiercely, to inappropriate behavior. Of course this is not always possible. In situations of real or potential violence, a fierce response may be dangerous. In situations where one’s job is at stake, women may well judge that their best response is to be quiet and passive. Sometimes, harassers respond to strength with even more vicious behavior. As one of my colleagues put it, “Some have a need not just to exert power, but to erase women altogether.”
However, in many situations a direct, forceful, outraged response — either from the attacked or a bystander — can make a bully back off. This kind of behavior doesn’t come naturally to many women. We are often taught to be nice and polite and cooperative, not ferocious and intimidating. That’s why many of us need coaching and practice to incorporate fierce behaviors into our repertoire, so when we choose to confront bad behavior, we know what to do and have the muscle memory to do it.
My young friend is getting a head start. I hope a lot more mother-coaches and teacher-coaches and big-sister-coaches will help this generation of girls (and boys, for that matter) learn how to use their personal power to protect themselves and others. And in addition to training men and setting up reporting systems, I hope companies will provide training and support to enable people to address harassment directly when it happens.
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