When #MeToo Becomes Catch-22
A number of high-profile men have recently lost powerful positions over their alleged sexual misconduct. But for female victims of harassment, speaking up often is just as career damaging.
Managerial women who report such abuse can struggle to regain their professional momentum. To escape toxic work environments, they frequently quit or exit entire industries, and some choose different professions, according to interviews with lawyers and women who have experienced sexual harassment at work. When women resign due to sexual harassment, their earnings tend to stall or decline, an academic study published last year found.
A hotel-industry veteran says she left the business in 2016 after male bosses at two hotels sexually harassed her within five years.
“I didn’t like how powerful men mistreated me and saleswomen,” this marketing executive recalls. She is now a sales director for an operator of senior residences. With mostly women running those properties, “I haven’t had any sexual harassment since I switched industries,” she says.
Harassment pervades the workplace. About 51% of female executives, managers and professionals say they have been sexually harassed on the job—and the same proportion has witnessed it, according to a December survey of 3,247 women and men by the American Management Association.
But many people also say they wouldn’t feel comfortable reporting sexual harassment.
“Sexual harassment is such a profound assault to a woman’s sense of dignity,” says Debra Katz, a civil-rights lawyer at Katz, Marshall & Banks LLP who represents victims. In particular, “their self-esteem has been shattered,” says Cathi Sitzman, a trauma psychologist in Washington, D.C. She occasionally treats harassed female managers for years.
In numerous cases, those women have trouble sleeping, eating or going to work, Dr. Sitzman adds. “They are not strong enough to look for a new job.’’
Many women arrange a confidential settlement with their employer, which means they risk losing money if they break the agreement, according to plaintiffs’ attorneys. But concealing their mistreatment complicates job hunts. Some shift professional focus and locale—a dual move that lawyer Amanda Blaurock says she made “to have power over my life again.”
A confidential exit package can help victimized women find employment again through severance pay, outplacement counseling, executive coaching and a mutually agreed positive reference. Ms. Katz says she pushes for extensive aid by reminding employers, “You made this person lose their career.”
Another lawyer with clients who have experienced sexual harassment says that a positive reference offers logical explanations for a top performer’s departure. “We ask for very specific talking points,” and pick a senior executive to deliver the message, says Wendi S. Lazar, a partner at Outten & Golden LLP.
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