How To Stand Up Against Harassment + Subtle Sexism

Photo by @glossier

Photo by @glossier

Sexual harassment has been a hot topic in the media lately, ever since famed Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein, was fired by his board of directors for committing rampant sexual harassment against several young actresses. Last week, model and activist, Cameron Russell, used her Instagram account to call out sexual harassment in the fashion industry. Her campaign hashtag “#myjobshouldnotincludeabuse” is still trending like wildfire because she is absolutely right… NO job should include abuse.

Whether we realize it or not, as leaders and business owners, harassment in the workplace is an important issue that we can’t afford to ignore. Our employees, our business communities, and working women everywhere are counting on us to speak out against the rampant sexism that plagues so many of our industries.


Here is our three-part strategy to combat harassment and sexism in the workplace:

1) Education, 2) Prevention, & 3) Conversation


EDUCATION: dispel these common myths about harassment

Myth #1: Harassment Doesn’t Happen in All-Female Work Environments

Harassment of others usually stems from a place of deep insecurity and trouble within one’s self. Women can harass other female coworkers in the form of extreme cattiness, competition, backbiting, body shaming, and cyberbullying. Furthermore, women are often the most critical and judgmental of each other. In all female environments, it’s common for victims of harassment to stay quiet in fear of what others will say, including judgments like, “She must have done something to lead him on.”

Myth #2: Harassment Only Occurs Between a Boss and Employee.

Sure, it’s more common for bosses to abuse their authority to influence subordinate’s behavior, but harassment on the job can come from anyone, even people that don’t technically work in your office. For example, the delivery guy that won’t stop asking your receptionist out, the client who constantly makes inappropriate jokes to his Account Manager, or the janitor who just always feels the need to clean the bathroom as soon as you walk in there. No matter who the parties are involved, it’s our responsibility to create a safe and productive work environment for our employees.

Myth #3: Harassment Is Always Sexual in Nature.

Harassment can be on the basis of religion, race, disability or any of the other protected classes. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are two kinds of unlawful harassment we, as business owners, need to watch out for:

1.     Quid pro quo (“this for that”) harassment is when a tangible employment decision (i.e. termination, denial over a promotion, write up) happens as a result of an employee’s acceptance or rejection of unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or any unwelcome conduct of a religious nature—i.e. a supervisor telling an employee she’s required to participate in a religious activity or she’ll be fired.

2.     Hostile Work Environment harassment is when any unwelcome conduct creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment. Examples of this kind of harassment include violent physical conduct, sabotaging someone else’s work, or telling inappropriate jokes about race, sex, disability, or any other protected classes.  

PREVENTION: As leaders, we can help prevent sexual harassment by putting policies in place and training all employees, especially those in a supervisory role, often.

Legal requirements regarding sexual harassment policies and training requirements vary from state to state, but for example in California, your sexual harassment policy must be in writing, establish a clear complaint process that doesn’t require an employee to complain directly to her supervisor, and explains how you, as the employer, will investigate the allegations in a fair, timely, and thorough manner. For companies with over 50 employees, supervisors are required to do two hours of sexual harassment training every two years. By talking about harassment with all employees and having the appropriate policies and procedures in place, employees will be aware of the warning signs and can report any incidents right away.

CONVERSATION: We need to speak up against subtle sexism and stop it before it evolves into harassment.

Through thoughtful and regular dialogue about harassment, we combat shame, loneliness, and the other feelings that isolate victims. In addition to using our platforms to talk about harassment in our industry, one of the most influential things we, as leaders, can do for our employees and for working women in general, is to speak up against subtle sexism. We’ve all heard people objectify women and discredit their brilliance, even if only in a “joking” manner. But what we need to realize is that when we stay silent or laugh it off, it perpetuates the problem. Instead, we need to find ways to kindly let the other person know that we don’t stand with their comment. How you respond can make a powerful impact. You might not ever know for sure, but your words and actions could cause someone to think twice about making a sexist comment or even sexually harassing someone down the road. Here are some responses we’ve used to shut down subtle sexism in the past:

  • "You know… I don’t agree”

  • “Actually, she’s brilliant and works harder than everyone else”

  • “I don’t think that’s relevant to the conversation”

  • “I wouldn’t discredit her, she’s the most (intelligent/creative/hard working) person on my team”

  • “Let’s focus on what’s professionally relevant to this discussion”

Looking to implement compliant sexual harassment policies and training in your company? Reach out to for a free consultation and downloadable resources.