Dr. Bettina Palazzo

My story

When I was working as a research assistant in Germany in the 90ies, one of my tasks was to help organize conferences. At one of these conferences I meet an economics professor and we had a nice talk. The week after the conference he called me in my office and said that he would like to “intensify our relationship…” WHAT? I asked him to explain himself better and after a lot of beating about the bush he finally let the cat out of the sack (no idea if this German saying is in anyway equivalent in English, but I guess you get the meaning, right?): He wanted to offer me a job as a PhD. candidate with a much better salary and a more interesting degree…under the condition that I would become his lover!

Ouch! I said:” Thank you, no thank you!” and felt kind of weird and drained the rest of the day.

Much later in life and after a few other experiences in male dominance strategies, I started asking around and discovered that also most of my female friends had experienced stories like this and had never shared this with anyone.

Then came #metoo and it became clear that sexual harassment was a much wider phenomenon than most people had thought.

So why is it so difficult so talk about sexual harassment?

You guessed it. The reasons are many, they can be complex, and they are powerful. 

  • Some women feel ashamed to admit that they have been sexually harassed. Nor surprise here, it is pretty embarrassing being reduced to your sexuality in a professional context. 
  • Sometimes women think it was their fault. Sometimes they have low self-esteem and do not speak-up. 
  • If you open up about being sexually harassed, you become vulnerable and this is often a risk in an organization.
  • If you admit that you have been sexual harassed or discriminated against, people might see you as a victim. That is not a career-pushing image you want to have! Then there is the realistic fear that people will not believe you, if you report on sexual harassment, 
  • the fear of being ridiculed, 
  • the fear of negatives effects on the work relationships, on your career. 

This is especially true in cases where the harasser is your boss or up the hierarchy from you. The fear of retaliation if women speak up about sexual harassment is real.

According to a study from 2003 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14570522) 75% of women how spoke up eventually got fired. 75%!

  • And finally, women just do not know how and to whom to talk about these attacks. Back in the 90ies the thought that I could have blown the whistle at the university administration of this professors never crossed my mind.

We see there are many and good reasons to not talk openly about sexual harassment. In addition, there is a lot of misunderstanding out there about sexual harassment. Still today people tend to think sexual harassment is about (awkward) flirting and being strict and outspoken would turn the professional world inhumane and fun-free. Catherine Deneuve made a statement like this. Sorry, my dear. This is wrong! Sexual harassment is a power dominance strategy that wants to limit women to their sexual status in order to undermine their power as a professional. Or it is, like in my professor case, the misuse of professional power for the purpose of getting sexual favors. 

The hidden costs of Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is harmful not only to women, but also to men and to organizations. A company were sexual harassment is tolerated, is usually not a very nice and supportive place to work for anyone. According to some studies sexual harassment is most frequent in companies that are male dominated, hyper competitive and forgiving when it comes to bad behavior (https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/11/organizations-sexual-harassment/546707/). Do you want to work there? I wouldn’t!

If cases of sexual harassment become public, the damage for the company can be costly: reputation loss, legal costs, decline of employee motivation, bad employer image etc. 

But even without public exposure the hidden cost of sexual harassment should not be underestimated: the victim(s) (yes, usually, if there is a hostile environment in a company, you will find more than one case) will often be less productive, have more sick days and eventually leave the company. Turn-over is costly for companies: about 1,5 of a yearly salary for replacing just one experienced manager. (https://iwpr.org/publications/sexual-harassment-work-cost/) That way companies have been losing talented women for a long time. Talent that they are utterly needed in the face of our fast moving and more and more diversified economy.

It is also quite easy to imagine that sexual harassment does not only affect the productivity of the victim, but spills over to the whole team. According to one study this costs companies 22.500 $ per person in a team that is infected with sexual harassment (https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6570.2007.00067.x).

Finally, a corporate culture that makes it impossible to speak up on sexual harassment is also not a place for addressing uncomfortable truths in general: impossible deadlines, faulted products, wasteful processes, unrealistic strategies, mistakes of all kinds? Covering up problems and mistakes is a risky strategy. Successful companies make it possible for their employees to openly give critical feedback on things that go wrong. Only companies that cultivate an open feedback culture will survive the current shake out of turning bureaucratic corporate giants into agile self-organized entities that create innovations.

Consequently, my bold thesis is:

Harassment free companies are also more successful and more innovative.

So what needs to be done?

Of course, in order to fight sexual harassment, the change needs to come mostly from men and from organizations. But this will take a while. In the meantime, it is (unfortunately) an important career skill for women to be able to deal with creepy guys.

But how can we learn this important self-defense skill, if we do not share our stories? If again and again women think they are alone in this? That it is their fault, that their just need to toughen up?

Keeping your stories about sexual harassment and discrimination to yourself not only prevents women to learn from each other, but it also harmful for the long-term self-esteem and success of a woman. As the writer Maya Angelou said: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Sharing your story of shame and anger has a liberating effect.  

I have been working in business ethics for over 25 years and I have learned a thing or two about how to make people talk about sensitive topics. In fact, in most of my business ethics trainings the same thing happened: In the beginning everybody is shy and apprehensive about the topic, because, participants are not used to talk about ethics in business and they somehow fear that it might touch on their moral identity (We all want to think about ourselves as good people). But as soon as I create a save space and make it easy to talk about ethical dilemmas (by using a game), people usually do not want to stop talking about their stories of ethical challenges. They all had had these moments in their work life and it was liberating to finally see that they were not alone with this and being able to openly discuss them.

Dealing with these issues alone because you do not dare to ask other’s advice can be quite a burden in your work life. 

Speaking up is an ability that can be trained. Like a muscle that gets bigger with exercise.

Despite all the fears of speaking up on sensitive issues like ethics or sexual harassment, there are still are people who dare to speak up.

What do you think? Who are these people? What is different about them? Do they not have these fears? Are they brave superheroes?

Are they maybe in a more powerful position?


People who do speak up on important concerns do this because they have spoken up before. People who have spoken up on smaller concerns before, are much more likely to speak up on more important problems.

So, the degree of fear, power or bravery do not play a role. It is the practice that makes the difference.

This is why women need to learn to talk about sexual harassment and discrimination, share their stories, support each other and learn from each other.  

The basic structures of a sexual harassment attacks and discrimination are often similar: inappropriate comments and jokes, unfair work division, extorting sexual favors, inappropriate touches and emails etc.

If women unite and exchange their stories, they can find out what worked and what did not work so well as defense strategies. That way they can collectively build a tool box that will help them to react with calm confidence in most tricky situations. 

Without this kind of preparation, it can be extremely hard to come up with smart reactions on the spot, because often women do not see it coming and they are under stress. The consequence is that women automatically fall either into a predator or prey reaction. They attack back and risk to create more aggression from the other side and being labeled as the bitchy feminist. Or they stand there like a deer in the headlight and freeze, laugh, tilt their head, nervously touch their hair and go along (I know! It had happened to me when I was starting my career.). In any case they will become destabilized. And this is exactly what harassers want. They want to get women out of balance, because they cannot stand to see them successful and strong. 

Let’s sum up:

  • Sexual harassment is difficult to talk about.
  • Sharing stories helps to liberate women form the burden of these attacks. 
  • Women can defend themselves better if they share defense strategies that worked for them.
  • If women can mentally prepare for sexual harassment and discrimination it is so much easier to stay calm and confident.
  • Especially the new generation needs this kind of preparation. Without this, the circle of attack and helplessness cannot be broken.

So, what can we do?

Yes, women can create defense workshops themselves and train in clever reactions and responses. But wouldn’t it be even better if companies would be very clear about how they want to address sexual harassment and discrimination from day one of a new employee. Both to men and women?

Unfortunately, still today many companies are in denial about sexual harassment. I recently talked to a client’s diversity & inclusion manager and he told me that sexual harassment was considered not an issue in their organization, because on the company’s complaint hotline no cases were reported. Of course, as you might guess now, this does not mean that there are no cases, but that women do not even trust the independent ethics hotline enough in order to speak up. It is highly unlikely that there are no cases of sexual harassment in a male-dominated company of 50.000 employees. We do know from research in ethics and compliance that if you do not have any reports on an issue on your hotline, that this is actually not a reason to relax and not worry, but a serious red flag.

In conclusion, yes, talking about sexual harassment is difficult and risky, but hoping that the problem will go away by not talking about it, does not work. Neither for women nor for organizations. Women need to share their stories and create circles of support that provide women with a practical tool box of smart defense strategies. But this I only the second-best solution. Companies need to be transparent about sexual harassment, make clear what the expectations are, make it safe and worthwhile for women to speak up and, most importantly, do not let bad behavior pass without consequences. If this is ruthlessly done, then the day will come when we will no longer need to talk about sexual harassment, because it has become a thing of the past.

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