Each time in my career that I have ignored sexual harassment aimed at me, I have moved up the corporate ladder. For example, the boss who once pulled all senior management out of the company’s sexual harassment seminar because he thought it was a waste of time — and patted me on the butt as he left the room — has turned out to be my most reliable cheerleader (and a very impressive reference).

In my first eight days of my job at a financial software company, I was sexually harassed six times by my new boss. This list does not include his sexual harassment of me during the interview process, which I chose to ignore, since it was my first interview at a respectable company in six months.

Maybe you’re wondering what, exactly, I regard as sexual harassment. The easiest conversation to relay is this one:

Me: “Thank you for setting up that meeting; it will be very helpful.”

Boss: “Big testicles.” (He then pretends to squeeze his genitals.)

I had no idea what he meant by this comment, but it is short and easy to relay to make my case.

Here are some other choice moments:

When he took me out for lunch on my second day on the job, he told me he once fell in love with a woman as tall as I am but was intimidated by her height, so they just had casual sex. I said nothing in response.

But I knew, from a legal perspective (and also a moral one) that I needed to tell him his comments were unwanted. So that afternoon when he said, “I want to hug you, but it would be illegal,” I said, “You’re right.”

Each night, I relayed some of the best lines from work to my husband. He was stunned. He couldn't believe these events actually happened in today's workplaces. I told him this was standard. He told me I should sue so that we could go to Tahiti. I told him I’d probably settle out of court after three years for about $200,000, and I’d be a pariah in the workplace.

I told my husband that his very hot, 27-year-old boss gets hit on as much as I do. He said he saw her at work all the time and this never happened. I told him that OF COURSE men don’t harass women in front of other men. After all, it’s illegal. Men are not stupid. But I suggested to my husband he was perpetuating the myth that harassment isn’t widespread.

In fact, 44% of women between ages 35 and 49 report experiencing sexual harassment at the workplace — even though almost every company has an explicit, no-tolerance policy. A national survey shows that 21% of all women report being sexually harassed at work, while a Rutger's University study indicates that for knowledge-based workers, the percentage can go as high as 88%. Yet when women leverage the no-tolerance policy their names are plastered over the business pages, and they are blacklisted in their industry.

So the best way to change corporate America is to gain power and then wield it. To get power, you have to stay in the workforce, not the court system, and work your way up. Unfortunately, this means learning how to navigate a boys’ club. But when you know the system, you then are clear about the root of its problems, and you know how to initiate change.

In this spirit, I hatched a plan to rid myself of my harassing boss. Originally, I took a job in business development, even though I hated selling to clients, because it was the only place with an opening. I told myself that the members of the management team were so smart that I would learn to love sales from them. After weeks of harassment, though, I thought management was so smart that if I explained why I wanted to be moved to another department, they would see my request as extremely reasonable. I figured they would be grateful for my low-key approach to this sensitive problem, rather than resentful that I had been hired to work in biz dev and then asked to be switched to a department with no openings.

I was right. I was moved into marketing, which I prefer. I received a more prestigious assignment and gained a smarter boss. Had I reported that I had been sexually harassed during the interview process I would not have gotten the job. Had I reported the harassment to my boss's boss without presenting a plan for solving the problem, I would not have received a better assignment. In fact, if you have a strategy, enduring sexual harassment can be a way to gain power to achieve your long-range goals.

Epilogue: Eventually, my boss was fired. Officially for low performance, though I have always fantasized that it was for rampant harassment.

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  1. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Actually, I quit a job at 21 over a situation very similar to Sydney’s. The sad part is that I actually did try to report my boss. I attempted several times to reach HIS boss to have a meeting over my boss’s behavior (stroking my hair, comparing coworkers’ and my breast sizes, coming up and giving me unrequested neck-rubs while breathing heavily), but the only response I ever got from him was that he was too busy to meet with me and he was sure that whatever it was was not a big deal. I quit that job (at my university, actually) and yeah, the no-income thing is a real problem. I lived off credit cards for the remainder of my senior year, and it wasn’t because I couldn’t find a good job–it was because I couldn’t go back in time–only at a different job–and work my way through several promotions and raises to the point where I had been at my last job, where I had worked for over two years. In retrospect, I don’t know what I learned from the whole deal. I don’t know whether it’s good to try to do the right thing, or whether it’s worth it to take Penelope’s advice. All I know is, if I need an income, I need an income, and that makes me less ready to dismiss Penelope’s idea. I think she might just be on target, actually.

    • Tina
      Tina says:

      So Penelope’s advise isn’t really ethical, yet it’s good advise just the same?

      I see it very differently. In fact, I think her ethics under these circumstances as being among the highest.

      I believe her advice is best for all parties concerned.

      • Rachel
        Rachel says:

        Well, we don’t live in a perfect world, so while ethics are all well and good, they only work in this situation when all involved agree to act within their parameters. Since the other key players in my experience were unwilling to do the ethical thing, it made it impossible for me to deal with it in a manner which would have allowed me to keep my job with no backlash.

        Furthermore, I think one’s actions are largely determined by one’s threshold for pain/embarrassment/the shame of being sexually harassed, not by whether they’re right or wrong. Some people need to get out when that happens, and some people are able to capitalize on it and turn it into a positive thing. Still others (like Sydney above) act like they’re putting up with it when in reality, their disgust becomes apparent through the fact that they find other jobs (your approval of which, Tina, I find interesting, since Penelope did NOT leave her company when she was sexually harassed, and yet you write in your comment to me as though hers is the only course of action that is laudable in such a situation). When push comes to shove, I’m really not going to judge anyone’s decisions on how to deal with a situation like that in his or her own personal life. I just know the decisions I’m comfortable making for myself, and that is what I was saying. Until the whole world decides to submit to ethical behavior, some people will find their own ways around (or through) situations like this.

  2. Education
    Education says:

    When he took me out for lunch on my second day on the job, he told me he once fell in love with a woman as tall as I am but was intimidated by her height, so they just had casual sex. I said nothing in response.

  3. Shad
    Shad says:

    Last years I sent an anonomous letter to HR department and within a week the manager, a real scumbag, sexual gropist, harrasser was fired. I don’t regret my actions, but his boss, good ole’ buddy, now has me in the crosshair, not sure how or why he was shown the anon letter, but hey…
    This article sends a disgusting message; just endure it. It’s not like once you were in power you could just fire the harrassers without proof, that’s illegal too.

    • Tina
      Tina says:

      I admire what you did very much.

      I’m glad that the fellow was fired.

      Probably the remaining fellow was necessarily involved in the decision to fire him.

      You obviously walk your talk on this matter, so I think that I can understand your sense of antipathy at Penelope’s approach.

      It sounds like overall you’re glad that you did what you did.

      Each situation is different. It sounds like what you did was best for all parties concerned, INCLUDING the one fired.

  4. Anon
    Anon says:

    I’ve read all of the comments here and have to say that yes, each woman has a choice to make when it comes to reporting sexual harassment in the workplace. Just as there are levels of harassment that exist, there are levels of what we can “put up with” in order to keep a good job. I, personally, was a whistle blower. I was not going to let my boss pull what he did to me on one more innocent victim, and my reasoning was to protect others from this man. In my case, my boss promoted me to be the head of a team in a prestigious, very male-dominated company. I had been working for this company for only 2 months at the time, but was an expert in my field. My boss asked me out to dinner that night to celebrate my promotion, to which I accepted. Next thing you know, I wake up in his room naked, at 5 am in the morning. I had been drugged (a drug had been put in my drink) and raped. It took me three weeks to figure out how to best report this man so that I would not be nay-sayed or fired for reporting. I managed to get to the head legal department of the company and tell my story, which was a harrowing experience for me. It did, however, result in my boss being fired. Unfortunately, I had to work with his friends as my seniors, which was extremely uncomfortable at times. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done, and of course it affected my career in the company I worked in–there were no more promotions. However, I stayed almost 4 years with the company, and then left to do postgraduate education. No one harassed me after that, and even though it was a hard choice to make, I am glad that I made it. There are a lot of sick men out there that try to take advantage of women and I don’t believe we should put up with it. Deal with the small stuff personally, and for things like rape, blow the whistle–HARD!

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I am so sorry to read the comment above mine, about the rape. This is just horrendous that you had to go through that.

    I also had a colleague spike my drink – in a group situation. Fortunately, someone else in the group saw that I was getting oddly woozy, and he took me outside and put me in a taxi. How do I know that a particular colleague had spiked my drink? Even though all the others had just ordered their meals at the restaurant when I was put in the taxi, a half hour after I got into the taxi, one guy from the group was at my front door (he must have left the restaurant a couple minutes after I did) (when NO ONE from work had ever been to my house before – I don’t even know how he got my address – he had to have looked it up before the group dinner), jiggling the knob, trying to get into my apartment, and then he called my cell phone and my landline (and NOBODY had my landline number; I had given it to no one) over and over, and when I finally answered, he told me that he knew that I was ill (throwing up) and that he was there to “help” me, so I should let him in. I hardly knew him, and I was terribly ill, and of course I told him to go away. He kept phoning me from outside for another hour, telling me he wouldn’t leave my porch until I let him in. Finally, he went away. It was only later (24 hours later, after I peeled myself off the bathroom floor and could process thoughts again) that I looked up date-rape drugs online and realized what had happened. I had ordered only water to drink at the restaurant when everyone else was having alcoholic drinks, and this guy had, unbidden by me, fetched a slice of lime and put it in my glass to “make the water tastier”, which is not a normal thing to do with someone you hardly know. I’m sure he put something in my water, and had been planning to rape me after the meal ended, and I was lucky that someone else put me in a taxi when the drug started taking effect before the meal when I became incoherent and unsteady for no reason, which made the other colleagues worried about me (lucky for me I guess that I’m sensitive to drugs and I metabolize them quickly). Looking back on it, I think that the guy who put me in the taxi actually knew what our colleague was up to – they were just too good of friends (he was best man at his wedding) – but the guy who put me in the taxi was a friend of mine also, and I think he decided to “save” me from the tactics of his friend. (Taxi-guy stopped being my friend soon after this, and I think that drugging-guy was so angry about the whole thing that he made taxi-guy choose him or me to be friends with.) What a sad world we live in, when educated, lucky-in-life people can deliberately do these horrid things to other human beings, to strategize about them in cold blood.

    I did not report the drugging because I didn’t have any tangible proof, because it would have been my word against his and he was more powerful (it was also an 82% male environment), and because I was leaving that place in 2 weeks (which was already planned) anyway (which is probably why the guy attempted the attack when he did).

    I am in my mid-40s now and over the last 30 years I have occasionally been sexually harrassed, touched, propositioned, disparagingly-remarked-upon in a sexist way — the gamut. By bosses, colleagues, professors, customers, fellow students, fathers I was babysitting their kids for, etc. I even had a teacher in high school come up behind me in a small room at school where some equipment was kept and rub his pelvis hard up against me, several times in about 2 years. I ignored that and walked away each time. He never tried to restrain me or otherwise touch me. It seems shocking now, but he did that to a group of about 5 of us kids (when he was alone with one or the other of us), and we’d kind of joke about it amongst ourselves. We knew he wasn’t a threat (or, we FELT we knew enough to know he wasn’t a threat — now, obviously, if that was happening to any high school student that I knew, I’d feel differently and I would take immediate action.)

    The problem is that whistleblowers are often punished and cheated, even when they are believed and action is taken against the perpetrators. It’s terrible, but it’s the way the world works for now. I think it’s awful. I wish whistleblowers were protected, but even when there are programs in place to protect them, bad things still seem to happen to them.

    Mostly the best way for me to deal with harrassment was to turn the guys down, ask them pointedly and slightly loudly how their wife is doing these days, not to be alone with them if possible, get myself moved to another department if possible, etc. Most of the time, small measures that showed disinterest was all it took.

    However, one professor was persistent (this was when I was 35, not a young girl) and grabbed my breasts (I clamped down on his forearms and moved them away several times) and he frequently asked me out (I kept saying “no thanks”). I stayed away from him as much as possible, but after a semester of turning him down, he decided to take revenge, and his actions were terrible — he intended to harm my chances in my future career, and he DID. Horrible little man. (I went to the administration, as did other students who were witnesses to some of the actions done to me by him, and the administration said they had to choose him or me and they choose him, because a lawsuit about the same stuff had been brought against the professor the year before, and he had won. Of course, with a pattern like he had, everyone knew that he was a slimeball, but the administration didn’t want to take my side and be on a losing side of a suit.) I was written letters at my home address by senior academics from other departments telling me that the safest thing for my own security and career would be to leave, because it would only get worse. Because it was impossible for me to stay in that small, poisoned atmosphere, I was forced to leave my studies, which had meant a lot to me. I know that one day, this will be avenged, maybe not by me, but it will happen – he will get his just desserts.

    The Elle advice columnist E Jean has given advice about dealing with sexual harrassment – just laugh at the guy, laugh conspiratorially as if he must be trying to play a hilarious joke on you, which gives him a way to see that you are not going to accept his advances, and also a way to back himself out of the situation with no loss of “face”, and he can start laughing as well. This might be okay with minor types of harrassment, but men who are really out to conquer (and sometimes attempt to destroy) you may not stop that easily. You’ve really got to look out for yourself, and other women if possible, especially before things escalate.

  6. CCampbell
    CCampbell says:

    I think your plan was appropriate. As women get higher and higher up the ladder, the harassment becomes more and more extreme. I tried to fend off my attacker in a politically correct way and with consideration for a rather large ego. No such doing. After a physical assault, in a public place no less, and he being a married man –there were no takers to come to my defense.

    In the end – I’ve been in court for three years after losing my multi-million dollar company to the harasser – my investor. He retaliated when I publicly chastised him for his bad behavior and I lost everything.

    Now, I wish I would have kicked him in the balls and slapped him in the face. The results would have been the same, I would have definitely still lost my company, but the satisfaction would be all mine!


  7. nick
    nick says:

    You know, as a guy, I wouldn’t necessarily consider that sexual harassment. I’m not saying it’s cool to say stuff like that at work. Because it’s not. To me, it sound like this boss talks to women the same way he talks to men. (Still, either way, not cool for work.)

    Do some people abuse sexual harassment? – I think so. It’s unfortunate because some people actually get sexually harassed and don’t do anything about it.

    Men have a harder time reading body language than women do. Better or worse, it’s just the way it is. It might seem obvious to you when you give gestures that you aren’t comfortable. Unfortunately, he might not read them or understand them. What you need to do is make your ideas verbal rather than visual. If he still doesn’t listen, that’s sexual harassment.

    In my opinion, the workplace tends to be an uncomfortable place (both sexually and non sexually). People tend to be themselves. Others don’t like that. I bet if you took a pole, you would find far more people who feel politically harassed than sexually harassed in the work place.

    • Barbara
      Barbara says:

      it doesn’t matter whether YOU consider it sexual harassment, if it is sexual harassment according to the law! Apparently you are all quite ignorant of the law on here. Please go to the EEOC website and refresh your memories:

      “It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person's sex. Harassment can include "sexual harassment" or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

      Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person's sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.

      Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.

      Although the law doesn't prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

      The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.”

      I can’t believe any self-respecting woman would tell other women to turn a blind eye to harassment in the workplace.

  8. Biz Lady
    Biz Lady says:

    Ha! Ok, so your article is from years ago, but is still relevant! I have experienced harassment and have both complained AND handled it privately. There are too many nuances to get into for this post, but I can squarely say that unless assault is involved, you are better off learning how to politically handle, conquer, and wield!

  9. CaliCajun
    CaliCajun says:

    I was sexually harassed by a manager at a small company I worked at.They previously had no sexual harassment policy.  Told one of the bossess/owners who was a woman. She actually gave me a knife to use if he tried to touch me again. I asked to not be left alone with him and she said she would “see what she could do but make no promises”. Well, at the advice of another manager, the company wrote an anti- sexual harassment policy for all of us to read and sign. The guy admitted to the owner and other manager that he had been harassing me. The owners wanted to keep the guy until they could find a replacement and have them trained (so about 2-3 months). They then realized that (after researching) I could sue and they fired the guy. By that time I had made up my mind and quit. I then found out that the boss was saying that I was not completely innocent, that I asked for it, which was not true. I had worked there for several years vs his 11 months. Coming from another woman, that hurt. Nobody deserves to feel like that going to work. It sucked for awhile because I had no job but I am much better off. I will never let that happen again to me or anyone else.

  10. m
    m says:

    It’s interesting to think about Penelope’s reaction to sexual harrassment, as described here, in comparison to her self-reported stories about how her parents sexually abused her, how even as an adult she couldn’t quite see what was wrong about some of that abuse (see the story of her trying-to-work-in-nude-modelling photographs taken by her dad when she was in her early 20s and not understanding why they shocked her boyfriend), how she freaked out as an adult when sleeping alone in a tent with her dad and he pressed his penis against her but she just lay there, how she let her dad come see her in Wisconsin recently when she was upset about experiencing being hit by her husband. (I do not mean to be muck-rakeing, but Penelope freely told those stories, and there might be connections between them and this article on sexual harrassment).
    I think this rings true with a lot of women (and men), who are exposed so early in their lives to degradation, abuse, and implied threats to their safety that the idea that “you have to go along to get along” gets engrained into their spirits. Then, their fear, cowardice and self-serving responses when experiencing harrassment and inappropriate behavior as adults serves to keep the abusers and jerks in positions of authority and power, and puts many other women/men who come after them in harm’s way.
    Of course, these are ethical issues and personal choices. Very few humans stick their necks out for truth and goodness and “what is right”. It’s been studied quite a lot in recent years, and I think the percentage is less than 10% of people will really defend their beliefs etc. if it’s potentially dangerous to do so, or if they might become unpopular or suffer consequences. Humans are simply built to “go along to get along”, and that is too bad — but it makes those who do fight for what is right even more amazing and admirable. It is safer to keep your head down and kiss the feet of bullies and monsters and simply hope that they will turn their attentions to someone else and allow you to stay because you are useful and spineless.
    One learning point from this is that post and its reader comments is you really can’t expect anyone around you, even apparently smart and decent people who don’t seem to mean you any harm, to come to your aid if you are having trouble or even if you are following the law.
    There is something inbuilt in humans that makes us want to punish the individual that harms the cohesion of our group, even if the group is wrong and that individual is right.
    After that fact soaked into my understanding of life, I began to see “civilization” with an entirely new respect and awe, because it’s taken so many brave people over the centuries/millenia to make the advances in society that we enjoy today – towards fairness, developing a legal system, contract law, government checks and balances, emancipation of slaves, women’s rights, laws about working conditions, and on and on. None of these things in our culture is perfect, and life can still be quite nasty, brutish, and unfair, but we’ve got so much to be thankful for.
    I guess that Penelope is sticking up for herself and others by telling her stories of confusion and appeasement, by being searingly honest about her experiences and her choices. And that is VERY brave (and/or nuts! ha ha). She has reached as many people with her blogs/articles as successful “traditional” whistleblowers reach with their actions. And of course, by giving a lot of clues as to the identities of the people she says harmed her (her parents, her bosses, her husband), she is doing her own kind of whistleblowing, not by appealing to the authorities or laws, but by spreading the information to the public and leaving 1 and 1 to be added together to make 2. It’s kind of a passive-aggressive method, but at least she’s facing up to what has happened to her, and she’s apparently not being sued for libel by anyone, so…. Fascinating. I have criticized commenters here for being armchair psychologists about Penelope, and I admit that this post has seen me be one as well. But I’m not condemning her, just trying to understand her.

  11. Louise
    Louise says:

    Penelope, just think about that grand promotion you could score if you got raped! Shame you missed such a great career opportunity

  12. rlv
    rlv says:

    I think it’s a lot easier to do this when you have a husband. I knew I wish I’d had the support of a husband or boyfriend when dealing with sexual harassment in my workplace. Also just the fact of having one probably would’ve stopped my boss from propositioning me. So it’s great to hear advice about how to leverage sexual harassment, but let’s not forget that it’s not always that easy.

  13. Ian
    Ian says:

    Thanks, your advice it what I would expect from someone who sexually harasses women. My wife has been harassed for 3 years. The damage to our marriage, the counseling, marriage therapy and lost work should just be “Laughed off.” Her boss sends emails asking her not to wear underwear or a bra and let him know isn’t harassment but a good humored joke. He wants an off-site meeting in a hotel to discuss “work” not freaking lunch, to fuck her and offer her a raise and a position for doing so. Silence is empowering how? You are where you are today because women that came before you were not silent.

  14. Ellie
    Ellie says:

    “So the best way to change corporate America is to gain power and then wield it. To get power, you have to stay in the workforce, not the court system, and work your way up. ”

    I couldn’t agree with you more. This is all very sad but true. Changes are slow, most of them at least and we have to learn to play the game better than men do. If a woman feels endangered then report, but if you can fight your way through it and come out on top, do so. There will be no empathy from your co-workers and if there is, it will be off the clock. Get to the top and then create your own perfect work environment. Be bold ladies!

  15. Haifa
    Haifa says:

    “In fact, if you have a strategy, enduring sexual harassment can be a way to gain power to achieve your long-range goals.”

    This is just awful. No one should have to endure sexual harassment. Keeping quiet about it will only make it more rampant.

  16. Sophia
    Sophia says:

    I’m quite suprised at how people seem to deal with harrasment.
    Obviously there is a fine line between messing around and sexual harrasment, but I don’t think I agree with this post.
    It just seems a little… unfair. I mean, women worked for votes and rights by addressing the situation and protesting against it in the past, so surely we should do the same. It’s not appropriate for anyone to make sexually vulgar gestures or comments to someone.
    We shouldn’t have to deal with anyone doing inappropriate things at the workplace.
    I respect your opinion to some degree, but I don’t think simply ignoring the harrasement and forgetting about it is the way to go. That’s like not reporting bullying. Yeah, you mght be slandered a “troublemaker”, but at least there won’t be any more attempts at harrasment.
    Also, I think the first example you made in regards to harrasment doesn’t make much sense in my opinion, but to each their own I guess.

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