Women are often told that the best way to handle workplace harassment is to ignore it. But trial lawyer Meredith Holley knows better. In Career Defense 101, Holley lays out eye-opening research and tools that are proven to end harassment and help women advance in their careers.
As a trial lawyer and coach, Holley uses what she has learned from her own experiences of overcoming harassment, stalking, and discrimination, as well as her legal experience, to help her clients. Even women who do not want to bring a legal claim for their harassment are able to use these strategies to overcome sexual harassment and leave it behind for good.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Strong Women, Troubled Men
"I never thought of myself as a battered wife. I was a very strong woman in love with a deeply troubled man."
– Leslie Morgan Steiner,
TED: "Why domestic violence victims don't leave."
When Naomi first came to my office and described her experiences trying to ignore and manage the constant harassment at work, I understood. I had similar experiences of my own to pull from. But, even though I had not fully compiled the strategies in this book, I knew that it was possible to use those experiences to build strength. Leslie Morgan Steiner, in her brilliant TED Talk, "Why domestic violence victims don't leave," explains that when she was with her abusive husband, "I never thought of myself as a battered wife. I was a very strong woman in love with a deeply troubled man."
When I say that I have seen harassment build strength, I do not mean that the strength comes from managing men's troubled behavior. Naomi knew that trying to use her strength to manage her colleague's harassment was killing her. She was literally losing hair and having panic attacks when she pulled into the parking lot at work. She was ready to learn a different strength.
I am sometimes reluctant to tell clients about my background because when any of us compare our experiences, we jump right into saying, "I'm not experiencing real sexism." No matter who had the more extreme experience, we either feel like the bigger victim or the bigger whiner. So, I share this because I have had the great privilege of seeing life through the lens of straightforward, honest sexism, but not to compare any of our experiences.
When you grow up with the lessons I learned as a kid, you can see the outgrowths of sexism clearly, without the shame people have if they were raised to believe "sexism is evil." I've noticed that when people believe that sexism is evil, it contributes to their need to ignore and avoid it, which does not help end it. I would not have identified it as "sexism" when I was young because I was raised to understand it was "the truth."
I have one of those backgrounds that seems normal to me, but that I know has some shock value when I announce it in public. "I was raised in a cult." My brother likes to test out different ways to tell people to create the best shock value, but I'm so demure that I would never. Other than writing it in a book.
I was raised in a religious cult, and its core message was that women are evil. I went through a phase in my life where I thought that maybe I was exaggerating when I said that, but my brother, who is an investigative journalist, revisited the cult as an adult and assures me that I am not exaggerating.
I remember, as a 7-year-old, reading one of the magazines that the cult published and seeing a cartoon. The cartoon showed a young heterosexual couple, with a barrel chested, huge man, and a tiny child-like woman. I believe they were in wedding clothes. It had six frames, and in each frame, the woman got bigger as the man got smaller, until the woman was obese, and the man was in a casket.
The cartoon and the message of the cult had a big impact on me as a little girl. I knew there was something wrong with my mom (a message that she whole-heartedly believed), and that my dad was the head of the household. I knew that if I got bigger, it would hurt men.
(I have never been able to find this cartoon again, so if you find it, send it to me at Meredith@FreedomResourceCenter.com. Important note: I do not, however, recommend googling "cartoon woman gets bigger man gets smaller." Awkward results. Don't say I didn't warn you.)
Our family did not stay in the religious cult, and although my parents loudly proclaimed the evils of hypnotism and indoctrination, their core values did not change – women were still evil. They shifted to attending mainstream mega churches, but it was not very different to hear about why women should remain silent in church and can't become pastors than to openly hear explanations about why women are evil. At that point, I believed that message, and so the contemporary Christian dressing up of "women are evil" didn't even seem like lipstick on a pig. It was like lipstick on your friend who your parents bring to Thanksgiving every year. In my understanding, it was just the truth.
I became a feminist in college, which was the first time I read that feminism was not about destroying men, but about helping women. I was shocked. I went home and showed what I had read to my roommate. She, having grown up in the same small town as I, was also shocked. We had long conversations, even losing sleep, about the possibility that feminism was about helping women, not destroying men. (I'm not going to lie, I think that within the past six months we have had a conversation, losing sleep, about how feminism is not about men. Some conversations are just worth having over and over.) We imagined what that could look like for us. We wanted to help women, but we had never wanted to be shrill.
Don't worry, we eventually became the shrill feminists we were always meant to be.
Strong and Brave
Because I had such clear, shameless messages as a child that women are evil, and that women deserve less than men, I have always recognized those messages more clearly than many people around me. I believed this as an innocent child and deliberately decided to change the belief as a young adult. So, I can see where it comes through in culture – sometimes on a muted level and sometimes as directly as I experienced it when I was little.
This is the invisible gorilla test that Daniel Kahneman talks about in Thinking Fast and Slow. In the invisible gorilla experiment, researchers asked participants to count how many times people in a video passed a basketball back and forth. While the players passed the basketball, a person in a gorilla suit walked through the group. The study showed that when participants were focused on the players passing the ball, they did not even notice the person in the gorilla suit. Once researchers pointed out the gorilla, though, it was impossible to miss. This shows that selective attention narrows our ability to perceive the whole picture.
But, when we know a person in a gorilla suit might walk by (or when we know that the idea that women are evil is possible and acceptable to a lot of people), we can recognize it.
After college, and embracing the idea of being a feminist, I moved to Ukraine as a Peace Corps volunteer because I wanted to prove myself through helping. Ukraine in the early 2000s was another place where the message that women deserved less than men was openly embraced. I was teaching a 9th grade class on Valentine's Day, and I decided to do an exercise that forced them to use the descriptive words they were learning. I said they needed to write a love story between a man and a woman (I know, heteronormative, but I was making baby steps with them), and first they needed to describe both characters.
The woman was strong and brave, they said. She worked hard and had big muscles.
The man was very beautiful and kind, they told me. He was good at cooking and had stylish clothes.
At first, I was so excited. All of my lessons about gender stereotypes were paying off! Then, I realized what was happening. I realized before the students did, and I got them to pretty thoroughly describe the story before they started yelling.
"No, Ms. Holley!" they said. "We moved the words! We have the wrong words!" I innocently told them I had no idea what they were talking about. "The woman is not strong and brave!" they said. "And the man is not beautiful and kind!!" They were jumping out of their seats to fix the error, which was pretty outrageous for a Ukrainian classroom, where the students were taught that their elbows could never leave their desks. I was laughing hysterically at them.
"I'm strong and brave. Right?" I asked. "I moved to a different country just to meet all of you." They conceded the point, but they were incredibly disturbed about the mistake. We had another lesson on gender stereotypes, which was one of my favorite experiences of my time in Ukraine. The students were brilliant, and, like me as a child, they had no shame around sharing the sexism they were raised with.
While I was in Ukraine, I also had the chance to create a program that allowed my high school students to tutor elementary school students from the local orphanage (all participants ended up, not by design, being girls). It was so fun to be able to openly work to challenge what girls were capable of, with kids whose lessons on gender were so similar to what mine had been growing up. I saw in these girls the assumption that they were allowed to be smart, as long as they used it in a nurturing way – as with volunteering to tutor – but, they would not speak out and would defer to boys they knew were wrong in class.
At the same time that I was doing all of this good work, however, I was being stalked by a music teacher who had been fired from the music institute for molesting his female students. He would call my home and talk with my host mother. He would show up at my school. Early on, my host teacher told me it would be a good idea to go to a private violin concert with this stalker. We went to the Palace of Culture, which was a local performance theater, and he played the violin, to a giant theater with an audience of only me and my host teacher, with the accompaniment of a boom box playing R&B.
The Peace Corps had trouble responding to the issue, and, at some point, one of the security directors resigned – I believe at least in part because of the conflict around how to appropriately respond. Ultimately, security decided that I could be safe in the town, despite this music teacher's phone calls and constant presence, as long as I let my students know that I would need to leave the town if I saw him again. I found out in my exit interview that he had come to the school multiple times, and the school had just withheld that information from me. But, at the same time, I knew that my students and their families cared about me and would keep me safe. I knew I had advocates in the nursing staff at Peace Corps. I knew each of the volunteers in my cohort was family and would do anything for me. I had resources.
When I was leaving, my 9th grade class (I'm one to pick favorites, and they were far and away my favorites) asked me why I went to Ukraine. I told them, "I wanted to help you." They looked confused.
"We don't need your help," they said.
I laughed. "I know that now," I said, "Thank you for helping me."
That experience gave me a tremendous amount of dissonance around my idea that I would help the disadvantaged in contrast to my own sense of being vulnerable and unsafe. For much of my experience, I was being stalked and I couldn't buy food without help. How would I help the people I wanted to help? What could I offer if I was in danger myself?
I learned in Ukraine that often I was safe, when it seemed like I might be in danger. I also learned that my discomfort and unhappiness did not, in itself, help anybody. Just because something seemed hard or dangerous to me did not mean I was helping someone else. I had to re-evaluate what I wanted from life and how I could contribute to others through my own happiness and fulfillment.
Embracing the identity of "shrill feminist," which we often have to do to talk about sexist messages in culture, might be courageous, but it does not create a sense of belonging or ease. Even if we insider feminists know that it is okay to be shrill if it means standing up for other women, it assumes that we are outsiders to the other people we love. We are still the witches walking the line between advocacy and death by fire. It is so worth it, but it is not something we wish on our daughters.
Driving down the street at 26 years old, I remember thinking, "I wonder if it is possible for me to go to law school?" I wondered if I would be smart enough or if it was true that women really were more inclined to be good at, like, baking cookies than thinking. I offer that, not because I think there is any legitimacy to the idea that women belong in the kitchen, but to say that I was a college educated, former Peace Corps volunteer, who was about to rise to the top of her class in law school, and I got there just by being curious about whether I was even smart enough to be accepted to law school.
My thinking and my experience were incredibly dissonant. I had been trained to believe that women were somehow inferior at our core, and my feminist beliefs were so contrary to that. My brain reconciled this by resolving on the idea that while my women friends were naturally amazing at everything they did, especially legal advocacy, I needed to work really hard to prove I belonged. I so overshot this hard work that in aiming for the middle of the class, I became one of the top four students in my first-year class and received an extra scholarship. I was shocked.
I waited for the day when people would find out that I did not really belong in the law.
And don't worry, it came!
Early in my legal career, I interviewed for an advocacy position. In one of the interviews, I was at lunch with an older male executive in the company, when suddenly it seemed like I was on a date. I couldn't tell you what happened to change the atmosphere, but it was palpable. I remember the exact moment it happened, and the way the executive changed his posture and leaned forward slightly, as I leaned back. I went to a group interview later that week, and the same executive escorted me around, gentlemanly, with his hand on my low back. I was very uncomfortable. He told me that they were not hiring, but if they found someone "particularly attractive" they might consider opening a position.
I got the position.
My supervisor was a woman, and, before I started, I decided to ask her advice about how to set good boundaries with the creepy executive. I told her nothing had become inappropriate, but I thought it might become inappropriate, so I wanted to make sure it was clear that I was at work to do my job and to be recognized for my work.
My supervisor said, "I'm really surprised to hear that because the last person in this position worked really closely with him, she never said anything, and she's really pretty."
This devolved into a mortifying conversation about whether I am pretty. The other piece of advice she gave me was that our work is just really sexist and we have to deal with it. She did not have the skills or tools to teach me what I needed, and, like many women, she had done what she could to survive and be successful without them.
When I started work, the creepy executive quickly began to give me back rubs, rub my arms and shoulders, lean his entire body against me, criticize my clothing, and reprimand me for talking when (I found out later) he was dramatically pausing during stories. I had no idea what to do. I did not want to talk to my supervisor again because I did not want to have a conversation about whether I was pretty enough to be harassed. I wanted strategies that worked.
I decided that it was not really happening and I was just so nervous in this job and anxious about doing good work that I was over-reacting. I decided that I could change my clothes and maybe that would make the job easier. I gained 40 pounds.
I was a lawyer, I thought. I should know how to handle myself. What was wrong with me that I did not deserve his respect? Maybe I just didn't belong in the law.
I was constantly afraid. I felt fear throughout the day. I wanted to leave the job, but that would mean giving up my career. My mentors didn't know what was going on, but told me to stick out my job even though I was unhappy and things would get better. I started experiencing suicidal thoughts, which I thought I had overcome years before.
I knew I needed to make a change, and I did.
Through my legal research, the thought management work I was trained in, and learning through my own experiences, I developed a career defense training that I have tested and tried with myself and my clients. Using the strategies in my training, I was able to have a conciliatory conversation with the creepy executive, in which he apologized and committed to change. He followed through with that change, we worked together for years after, and I left on good terms with that organization. I defended my career, using careful, deliberate strategies.
As is typical in the law, I have been called an assistant (and I have been told that John, the real assistant, must actually be an associate), criticized for my speech pattern (I talked too collaboratively), clothes (I exposed my shoulders), and I have constantly said too much or too little. I heard from older women attorneys that this is just the way the law is. It's sexist, but, like Leslie Morgan Steiner said, we are strong women, working with very troubled men.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Career Defense 101"
Copyright © 2019 Meredith Holley.
Excerpted by permission of Morgan James Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Strong Women, Troubled Men,
Chapter 2 Talk,
Chapter 3 Strategy 1: Law,
Chapter 4 Strategy 2: Reality,
Chapter 5 Strategy 3: Mapping,
Chapter 6 Strategy 4: Action,
Chapter 7 Strategy 5: Consequences,
Chapter 8 Strategy 6: Creation,
Chapter 9 Strategy 7: Purpose,
Chapter 10 What Next?,
Appendix I Cease & Desist Sample,
Appendix II Report of Harassment Sample,
About the Author,