Diversity & Inclusion

Why Women Leave: Culture of Abuse, Silence, and Retaliation

Book Review of "The Shield of Silence: How Power Perpetuates a Culture of Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace"

By Samorn Selim

Through my experience as the CEO and Creative Joy Director of Career Unicorns and the Director of Employer Outreach at Berkeley Law, I have supported over a thousand law students and lawyers to create their dream careers.  I have also provided law firms like Paul Hastings and companies like Google trainings on how to support women, people of color, and first-generation professionals to become leaders and succeed in their organizations by making it more diverse and inclusive. 

I am often asked, why do women and people of color leave?  What can we do to retain diverse talent?  Lauren Stiller Rikleen’s new book, The Shield of Silence:  How Power Perpetuates a Culture of Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace, is a must read.  The book courageously shows the systemic issues that cause victims of workplace misconduct to stay silent and, in too many cases, to leave the workplace entirely.  The book also shares key strategies on what companies can do to change this. 

Rikleen raises key organizational factors that allow and perpetuate workplace abuse and harassment. 

  • Policies and laws protecting the perpetrator and not the victims.  Even though organizations may have the “veneer” of fairness by implementing seemingly neutral policies to protect women, people of color, and other minorities, those policies may be furthering inequality because of “discretionary policing.”  When applied in a way where the powerful are protected, these policies have resulted in ostracizing and penalizing the very people they are meant to protect.  
  • Laws focusing only on sexual harassment.  Through extensive review of case law, Rikleen shows that women rarely succeed when bringing a lawsuit for gender discrimination, and these cases are generally egregious cases showing clear sexual harassment conduct similar to what Harvey Weinstein did.  But in cases where women are denied opportunities such as getting trainings or promotions, these situations are not seen as a violation of the law. 
  • Women underreporting because of fear.  The great majority of women do not report misconduct in the workplace because they are afraid of retaliation.  Studies also show that women of color are harassed at a significantly higher rate than white women.       Rikleen shares candid responses women gave to a survey conducted by the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts in partnership with the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership in 2018 showing that women who have reported workplace abuse have been called the problem, have been demoted or denied promotions, or even fired.
  • Managers, executives, and human resources minimizing the problems.  When women find the courage to report, they are often then marginalized and told it is not a big deal or that they must have misunderstood their supervisors or human resources department.  This further perpetuates the problem, and even more damaging, results in victims feeling helpless.  
  • Company and colleagues gaslighting the victims.  When women do find the courage to report, they are gaslighted and discredited.  Rikleen cites the nominations of Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court as prime examples showing how there is a culture of protecting and defending the perpetrator out of loyalty.  Reporting workplace misconduct has resulted in character assassination and shaming. 
  • Company covering up.  Even when the company knows that the perpetrator has had a history of abusing women, the company will deny any wrongdoing and cover up the problems to avoid liability.  In too many cases, perpetrators are transitioned with a generous severance package or even promoted to a new division.  

Rikleen suggests key strategies on how to prevent workplace abuse and harassment and how to properly respond.

  • Clear process for reporting workplace abuse and harassment.  While most companies have a written policy in place, most employees are confused about how to report workplace abuse.  Companies should clearly delineate how an employee should safely report workplace abuse, including basic things like who to report the abuse to and the process and protections that will take place once a report is made.
  • Implement measures to hold leaders accountable.  Companies should have a process in place that tracks and measures the results of workplace abuse similar to how billable hours or profitability are tracked.  One specific way to do this is to include preventing and remedying harassment as a factor in the career advancement of leaders.
  • Laws and policies should be more comprehensive.  Instead of narrowly focusing only on sexual harassment, laws and policies should be expanded to include protecting women, people of color, and other minorities from being denied trainings or opportunities that would advance their careers.  In doing so, the company creates a culture of inclusion and belonging. 
  • Encourage reporting by victims, bystanders, and managers.  Rather than putting the onus of reporting workplace abuse solely on victims, organizations should train all employees at all levels, including managers and executives to report workplace abuse and harassment. 
  • Provide ongoing training.  Instead of having only a written policy or a one-time training, organizations should provide ongoing training.  These trainings should include how to file a complaint and how to support victims of harassment as a third party. 
  • Be transparent about the process and results.  Victims are asked to sign NDAs.  To change the culture of harassment and abuse, companies should be transparent about the process and the findings of the investigation.  If there is a finding of wrongdoing, companies should provide proportionate and appropriate disciplinary actions including:  termination, coaching on proper behavior, reductions in compensation, or removal from leadership.

Women leaving the workforce because of a culture of abuse, silence, and retaliation is harmful to all of us.  As a community, we must work together to create a major culture shift where transparency, accountability, and inclusion are a foundation of all organizations. 

Author

Samorn Selim is the CEO and Creative Joy Director of Career Unicorns.  She is a lawyer, speaker, and author of Belonging:  Self Love Lessons From a Workaholic Depressed Insomniac Lawyer. Samorn is known as the “Marie Kondo” of careers helping law students and lawyers “tidy” their careers and “spark their joy” by landing dream jobs, getting promotions, and developing a book of business.  She is a board member of the American Bar Association Career Center, and a frequent speaker at organizations, including Talks at Google, Dress for Success, UC Berkeley Next Opportunity At Work Conference, and Paul Hastings.  Get a copy of the Transform Your Career From Dread to Joy Guide at www.careerunicorns.com.

Video

Watch the Career Development Series video of Lauren Stiller Rikleen discussing her research here: Challenging the Power that Allows Sexual Harassment and workplace Misconduct to Thrive.