It’s two years after the start of #MeToo. We have witnessed so many women speaking up against sexual harassment and assault, speaking out against their offenders, and we have been inspired by their courage. We are now more motivated and determined to empower ourselves and others. This movement goes much further than sexual harassment, it has raised increased awareness around overall gender discrimination in the workplace and persuaded us to speak up. But then what?
What we’re not talking about is the lack of support women receive after they speak up. We are quick to celebrate them for having the guts to tell their truth and take a stand against sexual harassment and gender discrimination, but backlash is a reality. Once you report bad behavior of any kind, women are often shunned and blackballed. Speaking with CEO and Founder of Assemble HR, Jill Katz, who has a 20-year career as a Human Resources leader, she said, “Some people worry there may be great risks in raising an issue because once you’ve officially spoken up, there’s no turning back. Unfortunately, to some, the risks may feel so serious that they choose to keep quiet.”
We have a new problem and it’s how we respond to retaliation. Once an individual stands up and raises their hand to speak out, they quickly become a target. The same organization or people that applaud them for being brave often turn their backs on them as well. You are pegged as a whistle blower, a nuisance, a troublemaker – the squeaky wheel that will never be oiled again. We have seen women struggle with this quite a bit over the last few years especially in tech, media and entertainment.
However, we aren’t talking about what happens after you have the courage to speak up and applause turns into silence, as that same woman tries to secure her next role, new job or even a reference. The retaliation that follows is retribution for going against the company or individual and making noise, even though most companies preach that speaking up is part of their values. The same women we commended are now “unemployable” in that same company or industry. What has changed other than she raised improper behavior and defended herself? And would a man be treated the same way?
In 2012, Ellen Pao filed a gender discrimination suit against her former employer Kleiner Perkins. She went to trial and lost in 2015. In the aftermath, Pao struggled to find her place in the tech industry and ended up starting her own company. Several suits were filed following Pao within the tech world, and many women came forward with claims of gender inequality. Unfortunately, we witness how backlash is a large hurdle to overcome with suits and filings like these. While many suits are settled out of court or kept “confidential,” you have the issue of retaliation within the company and more broadly the industry. In an Inc. Magazine story last year Pao talked about the feeling of being penalized by her colleagues and others. Retaliation has a snowball effect. It’s real and takes a long time to go away.
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Whether it’s quiet blackballing or overt, key influencers across all industries tend to know each other and the recruitment firms that help source talent. Everyone talks. Once the whispers and rumors start, it’s hard to control and stop. The issue you raised or the story you told becomes less relevant and why you should be penalized within your company or shouldn’t be hired becomes the new story and your new reality. In some cases, retaliation becomes so severe, it’s easier to just quit. This not only potentially ruins future job prospects but also harshly impacts self-esteem and sense of purpose for that individual.
The idea of retaliation is crushing. The individual who raised the issue didn’t suddenly lose their skills or experience, but undoubtedly their reputation is tarnished. Women rely on their networks differently than men and are normally much smaller. According to the Harvard Business Review, women need different kind of networks to succeed and tend to leverage “whisper networks” to discuss off-limit topics like compensation and promotions. Once you’ve been retaliated against, that already small network shrinks, and connections are cut off. For some, careers in that field are often put on hold, maybe forever.
In 2018, according to the EEOC, retaliation was the most frequently filed charge with the agency at 51.6% of complaints, followed by sex with 32.3%. How do we continue to keep the conversation going and create cultural change if companies aren't doing more to support their employees, both women and men, when they speak up? In recent news, several of the Google employees that organized and participated in the walk out last year have now complained about retaliation against them within the company. How do we ensure employees continue to speak up for themselves or others when faced with retaliation, which could include demotions, hostile work environments, targeted performance reviews as well as job loss?
The fear of retaliation and being blacklisted is enormous, therefore it is now discouraging people to use their voice. We have a long way to go for people to feel safe raising issues around sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Many environments don't foster a feeling of security or take into consideration what happens next after you file a complaint. Lee Stowell’s fight against Cantor Fitzgerald and mandatory arbitration continues to make headlines. Her claims about the prolonged pattern of abuse and harassment endured after speaking up, further signals this growing problem and the need for more supportive workplace cultures.
As we evaluate how the #MeToo movement evolves we need to confront the issues, make examples of the bad actors, but also support those who have shared their experiences. If we continue to hide their stories and shun those who have the courage to speak up, the problem will only get worse.