Six Steps for Handling Gender-Based Psychological Violence at the Workplace
One of the most common, yet least reported, forms of gender-based violence millions of women experience at work is psychological violence, which may or may not include sexual harassment but which largely involves women being forced to work in an intimidating, hostile, or humiliating environment. Microaggressions are an all-too-frequent reality in the workplace and can negatively impact women's career progress.
While macroaggressions occur on a systemic level and can be obvious, microaggressions are everyday slights and invalidations that women and other marginalized groups regularly experience in day-to-day interactions. These often go unacknowledged and may include sexual objectification, use of sexist language and humor, interruptions, invasion of personal space, dismissal of ideas, snide remarks, or other derogatory digs.
Women also often experience what is called "benevolent sexism" - believing or acting as if they are weak and need the protection of men. Hostile sexism is easy to spot: angry, explicitly negative attitudes toward women, but benevolent sexism seems positive and harmless.
Women are often tempted to brush this experience off as an overreaction or a misunderstanding of benign intent, but in reality, such behavior can be insidiously dangerous, as the perpetrator aims to assault the dignity, competence, and self-worth of the target, often leaving the target feeling responsible, sabotaged, undermined, and confused.
Unconscious bias and ignorance are cited as the two most common causes of such behavior. Although these subtle and unintentional "slips of the tongue" may not seem a big deal, in reality, regular and frequent put-downs and demeaning comments chip away at the confidence level of victims, preventing them from performing optimally.
Here's what you can do.
Identify the behavior.
Psychological violence can be either a "one-off" or a series of incidents and may have immediate implications on the health and wellbeing of the recipient. Determining whether or not a comment or action directed toward you is inappropriate is often subjective, but if you feel upset and uncomfortable as a result, then it’s very likely to be.
The first thing you need to if you feel you are the victim is identify that it’s happening. Once you say what it is, you open yourself to different possibilities of handling it.
Take charge of your emotions.
If you're being targeted, it’s important to know it’s not your fault, and it has nothing to do with your actions or who you are as a person. Take control of your emotions and detach yourself from the abuse. You did not incur this on yourself, nor do you deserve it.
Also, you are not alone. Many studies evidence that more than half of the women say they have been harassed at work and most admit to not reporting it. If the behavior is repetitive, impacts your mental health, involves someone you work with closely, and affects how you will be perceived, then ignoring or avoiding the abuser - though seemingly safe - will actually be more harmful.
Appeasing the abuser or complying is no solution either. Bullying or harassment is a power struggle. Once you give into one demand, they will push for more. If you chose to respond, you could do so immediately or wait until you are in more control of your feelings.
Start preparing your case.
Before moving forward, take steps to reverse any health triggers that may have arisen - protecting your own mental health should be a priority.
Next, prepare a file that documents all bullying incidents you have been exposed to, substantiated with facts, and keep it handy for future reference including times, dates, and people that witnessed the events.
Confront and set boundaries.
Before resorting to other measures, directly confront the perpetrator. If personal space is being invaded, place a physical boundary (like a desk) between you and them, or ask them to step back. If emotional space is being threatened, tell them to stop, politely yet firmly.
Bullies sense fear and prey on weakness. Show them upfront that you are strong and they will usually back down. Your body language is crucial. Stand up straight, don’t fidget, use a calm and collected tone, and maintain eye contact. Ensure that you’re not physically cornered.
A statement like “Get your hands off” is firm, assertive, and non-negotiable. You can start by stating what you saw and heard without making a judgment, then share your reaction and feelings on the matter.
Finally, disclose what you need or want from the other person to resolve the issue. Example:
When you continuously interrupt me, I don’t want to contribute in meetings anymore. I feel disrespected. I would like you to let me finish what I am saying.
Build a support network/allies.
Focus on the people who trust you and don’t be discouraged by unfounded accusations and mud-slinging by the bully. Establish a reliable set of supporters who can back your confrontation against the bullies. These peers or allies can also stand up for you when you're interrupted, spoken over, undermined, or otherwise discriminated against.
If the bully remains undeterred or if you feel that there is serious risk in confronting the latter (such as being physically harmed or losing your job), then prepare for the next action. This could involve filing an internal complaint with your manager, who will typically give you their opinion about the claim and discuss your options. Be prepared with your file of documented facts to defend your case.
American psychologists Gary and Ruth recommend another approach: building a business case showing the financial impact of the bullying and presenting it to the executive team. "Speak their language," and you might be surprised by the results that you get. This approach is fact-based and stands a lesser chance of being discounted or discredited.
If your manager sides with the bully owing to personal friendship or rationalizes the mistreatment, you may have to consider involving HR/D&I representatives or other higher-ups. And if those don’t help, you can pursue other legal actions or consider a change of environment.
If you are successful, don’t leave it there. Endeavor to bring reforms in your workplace. Most people can be apathetic bystanders when witnessing someone else being bullied. Avoid being one of them.
Moreover, support creation, implementation, and enforcement of anti-microaggression policies. Elicit top management support and create awareness around dos and don’ts. Encourage consistency in reinforcing these rules — bullies often back down if they know they will be held accountable.
[Related: Personal Reasons for Driving Gender Equity]
Hira Ali is an author, writer, speaker, and executive coach focused on women’s and ethnic leadership development, closing the gender gap and breaking the glass ceiling. She is the Founder of Advancing Your Potential and International Women Empowerment Events and Co-Founder of Career Excel and The Grey Area. Contact her on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Facebook. You can buy her book here: Her Way To The Top: A Guide to Smashing the Glass Ceiling.
Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.
Advancing Your Potential
Hira Ali is a Leadership Trainer, Motivational Speaker, Writer, Executive Career Coach & Licensed NLP Practitioner. She is the founder of Advancing Your Potential and Revitalize & Rise. Over the past decade she has had the privilege of training & coaching hundreds of people belonging to various professions, cadres, ethnicities and across a wide range of industries with a 98% above average rating review. From teachers to students, from corporates to police officials, from business owners to students,... Continue Reading
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