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“I had to stop being sexist against myself before I could really impact the behavioral sexism I was seeing in the environment.” — That’s from this week’s guest, attorney turned conflict resolution coach, Meredith Holley.
Meredith is an attorney in Oregon who was working in 2013 at a law firm representing victims of sexual harassment. Yet at her law firm, one of her male bosses was sexually harassing HER. She said she found it to be an extremely humiliating problem to have; and yet she ultimately found a way to not just get the harassment to stop, but to continue working successfully at that same firm – with her harassy-y boss, no less – for several years to come.
Throughout the conversation, Meredith had lots of helpful suggestions for women facing similar situations. And she delivers it all with a heavy dose of humor – there was lots of laughter throughout this episode.
Julia and Meredith also talked about male backlash to the #MeToo era – and Meredith offered a (hopefully) reassuring story to the men listening, about a male client of Meredith’s who said something sexist and dumb at a public event, came clean about it, and experienced a more positive outcome than he ever imagined he would as a result.
(See, men? We aren’t all out to get you! We just want you to take responsibility for your behavior, and demonstrate that you’ve changed. If you do that, we’re pretty much all good!)
Meredith is also the author of two books:
Career Defense 101: How to Stop Sexual Harassment Without Quitting Your Job, by Meredith Holley
The Inclusive Leader’s Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture, by Meredith Holley
To accept Meredith’s generous offer of receiving BOTH her books, in digital form, free of charge go to https://CareerDefense101.com
Would you like us to keep making more episodes like this one? Make a contribution here. Join the Solving #MeToo community: email: firstname.lastname@example.org Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/199718984507390/ Twitter: @Julia_Kline, @SolvingMeToo #TheSMTPodcast, #SolvingMeToo
Julia: I’m always excited about all of my interviews, but holy cow, am I excited about this one. I just can’t wait for Meredith to just download all of her wisdom and solutions and experience to all of us. And as soon as we do and we all just take it in and implement it, Solving #MeToo will be done. It’ll all be over. We will have fixed it all.
So Meredith Holley, thank you so much and I hope that you can live up to that introduction. [laughter]
Meredith: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. We’ll see.
Julia: Yes, yes, yes, yes. so as I was saying, given that the focus of this podcast is on SOLVING #MeToo, I am just thrilled and delighted to be talking to somebody like you who has made it your life’s work through a couple of different iterations to also devise concrete, actionable solutions to the problem of workplace sexual harassment and assault. And I really just want to spend this hour letting you educate listeners about the strategies that you’ve developed.
And of course I want to encourage them to purchase one or both of your two books. Do you want to throw out what those two books are and where people can get a copy of those?
Meredith: Yeah. So the first book is Career Defense 101: How to Stop Sexual Harassment Without Quitting Your Job. That’s available on amazon, Barnes and noble, anywhere you buy your fine books. That book is specifically directed towards employees, towards the person who is experiencing a toxic work environment, sexual harassment.
The second book is The Inclusive Leader’s Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture. At this point that one’s only on Amazon. And that one is directed more towards the person who is — I had a lot of people after I wrote my first book, say, well, how do I support someone? How do I respond to this appropriately? So that has sort of the actionable steps for the person responding to a harassment issue.
Julia: Got it. and then you wanted to do some kind of a digital copy for our listeners?
Meredith: So I would love to offer free digital copies of the book if they would like it. All you have to do is go to CareerDefense101.com and that has a little picture of the first book, but you actually get both books, if you just let us know that you want them and where we can send them.
Julia: Wow. I think everybody will be running because you’ve got a knack for writing good titles. If I do say so myself, I do as well. So I know one when I hear one, and those are some juicy sounding titles. It sure makes me want to read them both
Meredith: Thank you.
Julia: And, I just outed myself. I didn’t read them before this interview. [laughter]
Meredith: It’s okay. If you don’t want to wait to read the book to get help, talk to me.
Julia: I actually, I bought it on Kindle. It’s sitting on my phone, but I haven’t gotten past the forward.
Meredith: You don’t have to – which is a lovely forward too, from Chrissy Weathersby Ball.
Julia: i think I was planning on lying and telling you I read the book. [laughter]
Meredith: I never get offended. I always think the interesting thing is reading a book about sexual harassment is kind of the last thing that somebody who’s experiencing sexual harassment wants to do in their free time. So I always think, you know, go get help. You don’t have to read a book to get help.
Julia: Yeah. And I, I suppose I should mention as I do in many of the episodes, that I myself have never experienced sexual assault and I, and nothing even really that I could consider sexual harassment. And so I ask myself all the time, so why is it exactly that I am just completely obsessed with this topic? And I’m not sure that I’ve arrived at a really suitable answer, other than just abuse of power makes me see red in a way that is just visceral. And since abuse of women is the one that I feel I can most authentically embody and talk to and speak in defense of. that’s what I do. So.
Meredith: I think that that is kind of an important point because the term sexual harassment is pretty vaguely defined, both in the law and in culture. And so a lot of people say to me, I haven’t experienced REAL harassment. Other people experience real assault, real harassment.
And what that kind of misses is that sexual harassment is a broad category of discrimination against women. So if you’re in a work environment where there just are routine comments about how women are… something. Women are not as good at this. Women shouldn’t interrupt. Like all of these things that we see targeted at women that can legally be encompassed in the sexual harassment definition.
So a lot of times we think that there’s like a real — someone who’s experienced the real thing. And the trouble that happens with that is I have a lot of women come to me — or not just women, men, people of all genders, trans people — come to me and say, “I’ve been experiencing this for eight years. I’m having panic attacks. my hair is falling out. My doctor said I’m going to die.”
Oh, I had somebody come to me last week whose doctor literally said, you’re gonna die if you stay where you’re staying. And the thing that they were doing that led to this was they were saying, “this isn’t real. This isn’t bad enough. This isn’t real harassment. This is – am I right about this?” And questioning their own perspective and the legitimacy of their experiences. I think that that can be a really dangerous thing that I see a lot of people do in the workplace.
Julia: Yeah. And the, I have not – I’ve never been physically assaulted, but I did have two scary experiences in my life. And one of them was when I was 15 and I was on vacation with my family in Puerto Vallarta, and my brother and I had gone out – my younger brother, so he was like 12, which is just crazy, but you know, it was Mexico.
So we went out to like the club, in Puerto Vallarta. And we were smoking a joint in the parking lot with two other kids from the resort. And, these two men, in what appeared to be police uniforms – I don’t know to this day whether they actually were police officers or not – accosted us in the parking lot and dragged us off into this little building. And they put the three boys in one room and put me in another room.
And nothing happened. Nobody touched me. I didn’t, you know, nobody, you know, got up in my, like – I was not physically threatened at any point. But I was 15. I was alone, and these two men, were, you know, looking at me leeringly. And, and, you know, and they definitely in their broken English, suggested that they wanted to have sex with me.
And I actually thought that I kind of brilliantly saved myself by saying to them in Spanish that, no, I can’t possibly, I’m saving myself for my husband. Thinking that that would — you know, and so nothing happened. And they ultimately let us go. And they, you know, they took all the money and all the weed that the boys had on them, and they just let us go.
And it fucked me up for years. Because I didn’t know – and I still to this day, feel weird about calling that — well I mean, listen, the way that I preambled it —
Meredith: I know. It’s so interesting. Right? And it’s not uncommon. Just as a legal matter, sexual assault doesn’t mean rape always. Sexual assault is also a broader context of being touched when you don’t want to be touched, of being touched in a sexual manner. And so a lot of people don’t know that that actually is a crime. If somebody is groping you over your clothes, that can be a prosecutable crime.
Potentially not in every state. I should preface all of this with, I’m a lawyer licensed in Oregon, and so I know Oregon law. Criminal law is different from state to state. But in general, being touched when you don’t want to be touched is something that you can call 911 about.
And women are – or people socialized as women are so socialized to believe that it’s normal to get touched. It’s normal to get threatened. It’s normal to have humiliating jokes made about our body, about our weight, about all of these that we don’t see happen to men. But we say, well, that was just one time. That was one incident.
And here’s the thing. I think we have a lot of motivation to not identify things as sexual harassment or sexual assault because we believe that if we do, it makes us a victim or it makes us weak or it de-legitimizes people who have the quote unquote real harassment, right? We have a lot of motivation not to identify these things.
And I think that that’s actually okay. Because it’s more about what is the behavior you do want to tolerate in your life and what is the behavior you don’t want to tolerate in your life? And you don’t have to call it sexual harassment or sexual assault to decide that that’s not the work environment that you want to be in.
Julia: And so let’s put a pin in that and we’re going to get back to that.
But I want to, bring the listeners up to speed a little bit more fully on who you are and how you got to this point. You started out as a lawyer at a firm that advocates for employees who have experienced discrimination and harassment. So tell us about how advocating for survivors shaped your view of this issue and how it sort of started you down this path.
Meredith: Yeah. So I was literally raised to believe that women are evil. That was actually a foundational teaching in my family. And it wasn’t until I got to college that I accidentally took a feminism class and then was reading feminist literature and was informed that it’s not about men at all, but is based in the concept that women also deserve rights, that women also deserve jobs, that a single mother should be allowed to feed her family. That all of these things that seems so foundationally human to me. And that just totally changed my life, totally changed my world, how I saw myself, how I saw society.
Ultimately, when I started as a lawyer, I did get this dream job and, and we helped all types of injured people. But my main focus was sexual harassment. And so I found myself in this place where I literally had a case where the woman was experiencing what I was experiencing in my workplace of just daily touching, backrubs demeaning comments…
Julia: So you – this is just this crazy, ironic situation. You’re working in a law firm that advocates for victims of sexual harassment, and one of your colleagues at this law firm is sexually harassing you.
Meredith: Yes. To me, it was such a humiliating problem to have. I felt like as a lawyer who is advocating for women that I should have this problem solved, I should know how to deal with this. And I went to other employment lawyers and I said, I know how we sue companies if somebody gets fired, if they’re experiencing sexual harassment.
But what if you’re dealing – hypothetically, if I had a friend [laughter] who was dealing with a situation where she didn’t want to leave her job, where she’s in her dream career job and she just doesn’t want to get touched every day by someone who has control over her job, over whether she gets fired or not. How do we help them not get touched? And pretty consistently, everyone just said to me, you know, things are really sexist. You just gotta deal with it. We don’t know how to do that among lawyers.
Julia: And what, what year or years in which was this happening?
Meredith: This was 2014, 13, 14.
Julia: Okay. Okay. So still in the era in which, you know, the pre-October of 2017 moment when all of us kind of went, “It doesn’t have to stay this way?!” It was certainly, you know, the, the conventional wisdom was, Oh, that’s just the way it is.
Meredith: Things are just really sexist. You gotta work twice as hard. Got to prove yourself. Don’t make waves. Don’t ruin your reputation.
Julia: Hmm. So, would you be comfortable sharing, any more detail about the harassment that you experienced?
Meredith: Yeah. I mean, in general, it, it was just an environment that was pretty fraught. I mean, lawyers have strong opinions anyway, but there was a situation with this particular person that made it feel threatening to me where if he was – he was one of these people that would talk and then take a long pause before he said his next thing. And in the natural course of conversation, often if you pause, somebody jumps in and says, Oh, I agree with that. And so there was this interesting dynamic where I would do that and he would just lose it. Like, “I guess I’m done talking then. We don’t have to ever talk anymore.”
Which is interesting how these experiences play into the coerciveness of a actually sexualized experience because then when he would come up behind me and lean his body on me or massage my shoulders, I would think back to me quote unquote interrupting him and know that if I posed it, it was going to create a big scene.
There’s one point where we would work late and, his wife called and they’re talking about dinner and he said, “You know, I gotta go cause we’re working on something important.” And he hangs up and he says, see, you’re more important than her right now. And a lot of it was sort of flirtatious comments like that.
One time he was eating chocolate and he said, you’re so sweet, like the chocolate, but I don’t know how, — or “You’re so sweet like the chocolate. The chocolate tastes sweet, but I don’t know how you – “ and then he paused.
Meredith: Stuff like that pretty consistently.
And the thing that happened was I reported to my supervising attorney and she said, well you know this other girl worked with him pretty closely and she never said anything. And she’s really pretty.
And that was my first reporting experience. It was pretty early on, before I felt afraid. You know, as things went on, I was afraid to go to work. I was walking to work every morning and I was listening to podcasts and I could hear the sound of my heart beating over the sound of the podcast cause I knew I would have to stay late and he would be the only person in the office and I genuinely didn’t know what could physically happen to me in the situation.
In retrospect, I do not believe he had any intent to physically violate me. But at the time when you don’t know, I was very afraid. And so I reported again, I did all the reporting things that you’re supposed to do and basically people were saying, “I wish it was somebody else, but because it’s him, we don’t really feel like we can do anything.”
Julia: Cause he, he was the, lead partner or…?
Meredith: Yeah. It just was his particular position within the office made it difficult for other people.
Julia: So, ultimately you found a solution to this problem. Tell us about that.
Meredith: Yeah. So the thing that I realized – and this is sounds kind of simple, but I think one of the biggest things that happens to employees in this situation is that they give up. And they have every right to give up and every justification to give up. But then you have to think about what does giving up mean for you. Is it giving up on yourself?
Julia: Yeah. And we hear this over and over again, right? With the women who said that Harvey Weinstein or Matt Lauer or whoever – pick a name – harassed them over and over and over and over again. And then eventually they gave up and gave in and said, “Fine, do what you want. Whatever.” And, and, and that then becomes the defense’s argument that, “Well obviously, she ultimately wanted it. She did it. She agreed. So, you know, obviously I just, it was fine. I was just flirting with her. I was just seducing her. I was just wearing her down. It’s just what men and women do.”
Meredith: She says, no, no, no, no, no. But she really means yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And it’s not true.
What I ended up realizing and noticing with myself after doing a lot of work on my own, like personal work about this, was that he would put his hand on my shoulder and I would immediately think maybe I don’t deserve respect.
And it doesn’t sound like a sexist thought. It doesn’t sound like, “women don’t deserve respect.” But it is a sexist thought because it’s identifying my place in the office as being less power, as not deserving – maybe I’m never going to wear this dress again. Maybe if I change my dress, maybe if I walk a different way, I’ll be safe in the office, if I avoid his office.
And then I had all of these beliefs that I had to deal with about myself that were telling me to give up and that maybe I just didn’t deserve respect and that it was hopeless.
And so ultimately, the main thing that I did that sounds super simple as I just didn’t give up and I dealt with all that. And then I decided to look at his behavior separately from what I had internalized and being raised in a culture that devalues women.
And so I asked myself, what would I do – one, what would I do if this was a friend? What would I say to a friend if who’s experiencing this? I would say, do not give up on your career. And you can quit and I wouldn’t judge you for quitting. And I love you. Do whatever you need to be safe. And also tell this asshole to get his hands off your body. You deserve to do that.
And so the shift that I made was I said, okay, so a lot of employees are afraid to get fired, right? We’re afraid that if we stand up to a situation like this, we’ll get fired. And that sounds like the worst thing. So what we end up doing is we fire ourselves ahead of time by quitting.
And really in terms of a sexual harassment lawsuit, in terms of the law, if you get fired for clearly reporting sexual harassment, gender discrimination, any kind of discrimination, anything illegal – if you get fired for reporting that in writing very clearly, you have so many legal protections. So I ended up deciding if I get fired for showing up at my job, doing amazing work, supporting my clients, getting great results, and calling out the illegal things that I see happening, then I should probably get fired and have a great lawsuit.
Julia: Wow. That’s amazing.
Meredith: Yeah. So ultimately, one of the things that I did was there was a more senior person in the office. There were a couple more senior people in the office that had some leverage, but it was like going to talk to your friend’s dad about your boyfriend. Just these people that you really don’t want to have this conversation with. And I just said, it’s worth it. I’m going to have this conversation. And one of them went to him and said, you need to go apologize right now.
And that’s the end of the story. He came and apologized and said, I understand I may have made you feel uncomfortable. If I possibly maybe made you feel uncomfortable, then I’d like to apologize. And I said, “Thank you for your apology. Yes. That was not appropriate. I don’t want to be touched at work.”
Julia: Yeah. And so what you, what we shared when I, you know, at the beginning of this episode, I introduced who you are, that you actually, not only did you get the apology, it sounds like it became, it wasn’t just a, you know, civil, you know, we can barely stand to be around each other relationship. It sounds like it actually, you know, you had a perfectly okay relationship after that.
Meredith: I mean, we’re not best friends. He was very uncomfortable around me after that, and I continued to just advocate within the office and show up and not worry that he was uncomfortable.
So a lot of times what we want to do is we want to believe that our bosses need to like us in order for us to be successful at work. And really, if your boss is afraid of you, that’s not a bad thing. And he was a little afraid of me after that in my view. Obviously I’m not inside of his head, but he acted a little afraid of me.
But ultimately what ended up happening after a little while was, there were times when he would come to my office and ask me how to handle a situation within the office cause he could see that I was being in integrity and being straightforward and advocating for myself and being clear in my decisions of what the work environment needed to be.
Julia: That’s interesting. And then I want to ask you a question which is a sensitive one, and maybe not for you personally, but I know certainly for some listeners, which is, how come you didn’t just say something to him? How come you had to find two, three, four, five people up the chain to go and tell him that it wasn’t appropriate?
Meredith: That was actually just strategic in my situation. I think in many situations you can. I considered, and I discussed with other people in the office, “I’m fine to go tell him not to do this. I don’t think that’s gonna result in him not doing it. I think it’s going to result in a bunch of drama.” And then they agreed that that probably wouldn’t result in him stopping.
So I did peace Corps in Ukraine after college, and I had this experience where we were at a party and I was walking home and this guy came up behind me and wrapped his arms around me and I literally kicked him off of me. And so I’ve never had a problem telling somebody, stop what you’re doing. And so this was an embarrassing, humiliating problem for me of being like, I don’t think that that’s going to create the result I want, to do that. I don’t think that’s the action that’s going to create the result of him stopping. I think then he’s going to have to prove himself more and put me down more because of that power dynamic.
Julia: Interesting. So you believed then, and I assume that you continue to believe now, that had you gone that route, he basically – he had so minimized you in his own mind that feedback about his behavior from you would have been discarded.
Meredith: Discarded and taken as a challenge potentially.
Julia: Whereas the exact same feedback about his behavior from his boss’s boss him stop.
Julia: We’ve talked a lot about how, how much responsibility you took for what was happening in your life and how you didn’t give up, and you decided to just change how you were going to make meaning out of what was going to happen. And ultimately you created different results by just being persistent.
And now in the work that you do with clients you coach them through similar behavioral strategies. And, I think that as we’ve just described, that’s a fantastic thing to do. It creates a good outcome. It stops the harassment. it’s effective. And so, you know, ultimately, you know, perfect, right?
And I think that a lot of people object to hearing those kinds of prescriptions because it feels to so many people like we are putting all of the emotional burden, the emotional labor, onto women. That instead of just forcing the men to stop, we’re jumping through hoops and doing cartwheels, figuring out all the ways that we need to be different. It’s just a different version of the, “I won’t wear this dress anymore” story.
So what do you say to that objection that, that behavioral approaches to taking control of your own situation is nothing more than just —
Meredith: Wearing a different dress, yeah. Yeah. honestly, I can say what’s worked for me and what’s worked for my clients. And I think if you’re in an environment where you can just immediately address the behavior — the behavior is always the problem, and so if you can immediately address it, then that’s what you do. 100% you immediately address the behavior.
But if you’re in a situation where you can’t, like mine, then what I want to do and what I believe is that we all have a duty to our own safety. We all have a duty to ourselves. And changing our dress doesn’t work to create more safety. But if it did, maybe we would just change our dresses, right? But it just doesn’t work.
Julia: yeah, yeah. Listen, so many women that have changed so many dresses, and we’ve changed so many routes to work, and we’ve changed so many ways that we talk to whoever it is that’s abusing us, right? And it doesn’t fucking work.
Meredith: Yeah. I think that’s the real problem with changing those things. And we shouldn’t have to, sure – we should have a society filled with equality and equity and compassion and health, and we don’t. If that did work, then maybe that would be the solution.
But to me, the amazing thing about these kinds of experiences and why I ended up being actually pretty grateful for this experience is that if I had gone on with this belief that maybe I don’t deserve respect, if I had gone on believing I should change my clothes, or I should change, or there’s something wrong with me, I would still be living that life.
And this allowed me to look at, and question, those beliefs for myself, that are beliefs that are aligned with my harasser. I had the opportunity to align against any belief that I deserved that behavior. And then once I did that, I could make a bigger impact on the behavior itself, which is ultimately the problem.
Julia: And so I think the distinction that we’re making here is that you weren’t changing your behavior. You changed your thought process. You changed your belief structure.
Meredith: I changed what ultimately were sexist beliefs that I had about myself that were in agreement with him. I had to stop being sexist against myself before I could really impact the behavioral sexism I was seeing in the environment.
Julia: And in so doing, you also fundamentally altered the power dynamic. Because the dynamic that existed originally was one in which you were significantly disempowered. Because of all of the material things, yes: he was your boss. He was older. He presumably made more money — all those things.
But he was also — there was a power imbalance because you held beliefs disempowered yourself. And once you changed your beliefs that you are or deserve to be less powerful, less valuable, less respected than him, it basically just vanished the behavior. I mean, I don’t want to minimize it and simplify it, but it made it much easier. All of a sudden you found the leverage you needed to get the behavior to stop.
Meredith: And it made the impact of the behavior on me so much less traumatic.
Julia: That’s very interesting too. And I think that that kind of goes hand in glove because when we are in that state of feeling traumatized, when we are unconsciously in that — we’re living from the space of the trauma, of the disempowerment, we feel vulnerable. We feel unsafe. And by definition, that makes us more vulnerable to being harmed by whatever might be happening to us. And so, by reversing that, healing the trauma, healing the belief, healing the old baggage also simultaneously, and by definition, made the current behavior less harmful.
Meredith: And also when we’re experiencing trauma from something like that, it’s not us doing something unreasonable or weird. It absolutely is rational and there’s always a rational reason that we’re experiencing the trauma from something like this based on our past experiences or current experiences. And, there’s always an opportunity to shift that.
Julia: Yeah. That’s a very important part to center and to presence. Whatever your reaction is, your feelings – your emotions – are always valid. Always. And, they might not be serving you. They might not be coming from your highest and best good. So if you can find a way to do the healing work that allows yourself to not attach that meaning anymore, so that you no longer feel threatened or disempowered or disrespected or whatever it is, all of a sudden the harm just kind of evaporates.
Meredith: And I think get help for it. I had to get help. I did not do this on my own. I did it with allies. I did it with coaches. I got help for it. And that is the number one thing that I, I think that people can do. if we’re doing it on our own, it’s so hard.
Julia: Do you wonder – obviously you never healed the relationship to the point that you could actually have an honest conversation with about this with him, which, gosh, that would’ve been amazing, right? But do you ever wonder, do you think that he knew in his heart of hearts that what he was doing was wholly inappropriate?
Meredith: My guess now, I mean, who knows? And it kind of doesn’t matter what he believed about it, but my guess is that he thought he was encouraging me as a new person in the office. And that he was developing some kind of special relationship. I and this is partly because of comments he made to other people that they told me —
Julia: About you?
Julia: So, so he was talking to other people about how much he respected you and how much potential he saw in you?
Meredith: no, he was talking to them about whether I had a boyfriend and that I was hot.
Julia: Oh, god!! [laughter] Okay. The opposite of what I was saying.
Meredith: Yeah. But I mean that I did good work. I know that he knew that I did good work.
Julia: Well, so I mean, that sounds to me like he was basically, he’s trying to groom you. He was hoping that he was going to have an affair with you.
Meredith: Totally. But I don’t think in his mind, I mean, he behaved kind of like an 8-year-old kid who is excited about this new toy. I don’t think that he had an awareness that that was not appropriate in that situation until we very clearly confronted it. And then after that, when other new people would come in, he was, in my view, potentially more cautious with other new people.
Julia: So you feel as though it did stop the behavior from repeating.
Meredith: Yeah. There were a couple of other minor experiences with him that after he apologized, I then could confront. And during the apology he said, I hope if I do anything in the future, you will let me know. And that gave me the permission. So then when it would happen in the future, I would say, this. is the – don’t do that.
And even in meetings I saw, he sort of would do a hazing thing with younger people, And I would – there was one situation where I said, Oh, hazing. And he was like, “no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. I didn’t mean to,” — but just calling it out.
Julia: Fascinating. And did you observe any changes in your – the culture of your workplace in the larger capacity, not just between the two of you? I just got done interviewing Sharmili Majmudar of Women Employed. And a big part of our conversation was about how sexual harassment in a workplace isn’t just between the perpetrator and the victim. It’s about the whole system. And the social permission from the group that either is or is not given.
And furthermore, that when you’re setting about to address harassment, that it makes a huge impact on the group when they witness how bad behavior is dealt with. And so I’m wondering if in meetings you basically smacked him on the back of his hand, say “hazing!” And he said, “Oh, Whoa, sorry, didn’t mean to,” I would imagine that that might’ve had a really powerful impact on how others in the office viewed any other instances of sexual harassment that might’ve been going on. What do you think?
Meredith: it didn’t eliminate inappropriate behavior, I don’t think. But in my experience of my situation, it impacted how they viewed me and what I was going to tolerate in my environment.
Julia: But you don’t think that it made a huge impact on any other people that were engaging in toxic, discriminatory, harassing behaviors to watch how he got smacked back by you?
Meredith: I dunno. I think it’s hard to say because you can’t compare two different futures. Like who’s to say? I think it did have an impact. I think that for me I started loving my work. For me, I started – when those things would come up, I, I just developed the belief that that was why I was there. That I could choose to believe that things shouldn’t be sexist, but – and I wish things weren’t sexist – but if I choose the belief, “things shouldn’t be sexist” versus the belief, “this is why I am here. I am the person who sees this and I am meant to address it. I’m so honored to have this role,” it made those experiences something that felt empowering instead of something that felt debilitating.
I’m sure it had an impact, but I think that culture moves forward and then there’s backlash and then culture moves forward again, and then there’s backlash. I don’t think that when we call something out, it means that all of the discrimination in an environment is gone.
Julia: And I wonder if this would be an interesting point to raise in the conversation, the question of trauma. Because that is certainly something that you acknowledge through the work that you do, that while what you’re guiding people through is a financial and a legal, often, battle, if they’re working with you in your capacity as a lawyer. But then it’s also a healing journey that you are helping people through and that I’m surviving and recovering from discrimination, harassment, assault is a healing journey.
And I talk a lot about trauma and wounding, and you know, increasingly we’re talking about PTSD as it applies to lots of situations in life. And I find that there’s a surprising amount of pushback from people about those words, trauma and wounding. And I think part of it is what you just alluded to, that people don’t want to self-identify as a victim. There’s a strong tendency to want to, you know – like if I, if I acknowledge the trauma or if I say I was traumatized or am traumatized, it somehow makes me weak and disempowered. And for God’s sakes, that that’s the last thing that I want to be.
Because what, what is so ironic and tragic and frustrating for me as I’ve witnessed other people is that when we feel threatened, when we feel unsafe, when we feel weak, when we feel vulnerable, that our survival mechanism kicks in and we do everything we possibly can to ensure our safety in that circumstance. And all too often part of that, that that knee jerk reaction to strengthen us and create safety involves negating the reality of the wound that exists.
Meredith: So true. And then I think that there’s another thing also – I really agree with what you’re saying, and I think that there’s also another thing that we want to think about. When we’re identifying sexual harassment or sexual assault, we’re identifying somebody else’s behavior. So I can feel strong and empowered and still identify that somebody else is engaging in discriminatory, offensive conduct that is targeted at women or targeted at race or targeted at whatever protected characteristic somebody has.
But often what we’re doing, even when we’re hesitating to say something is sexual harassment, is we’re taking it on ourselves. And, and what we want to do is acknowledge the wound, like you’re saying. Acknowledge the pain that we’re having and deal with that and heal that. And treat the other person’s behavior as potentially something very different than the wound we’re experiencing.
Because often when somebody says to us, skinny girls get jobs, or pretty girls aren’t going to get interviews or whatever they’re saying to us, we have a belief that maybe we believe them, right? and that’s where the pain comes from. If we believe anything that’s happening that is harassing offensive conduct means something about us, that’s where the pain comes from.
If we just see them as behaving in a sexually harassing manner, it’s possible to make an impact on their behavior without internalizing it as meaning something about us.
But most of us are raised with that wound, right? Most of us are raised that girls deserve worse than boys, that girls need to work harder than boys. And so we have that inside of us, that wound. And if we don’t acknowledge that, we end up in a place where I think we can’t move on, or we’re in a struggle with, with the topic.
And every once in a while I’ll have a man reach out to me who has been accused of harassment — and so I worked with this man this one time who made a comment that was something like people were getting massages and he said, “I wish I was the one giving them massages.”
And he agreed that the minute it came out of his mouth, he thought, “That’s like the most inappropriate thing I’ve ever said.” And one of the women was very offended about it. And then he went on to try to justify his comment and it turned into a disaster.
And so then he’s trying to repair this and asked for my help and this is exactly what I told him to say, is, “I understand. I would never mean to hurt somebody. I would never mean to say something like that. And I understand my intent and the impact of my words are totally different things. And it was an unacceptable comment. And I do not want to be like that. And so if you ever see anything like that from me again, please tell me. That it’s not who I want to be.” Because his comment – it doesn’t matter if she was not offended even, it’s still an inappropriate comment. But she was, and that’s important. Her feelings are also important.
And I think that we get stuck in this idea that there’s one reasonable response to a comment. There are a hundred reasonable responses. Hers was reasonable, and the person who was not offended was reasonable. And, and I think the feelings that we have in reaction to unacceptable behavior are reasonable. If we feel traumatized, go feel traumatized. Not that I want people to feel traumatized, but like that is legitimate. And we also want to look at other options so that we make sure we are safe even when there are people having 100% unacceptable behavior.
Julia: Yeah. And so I, I feel like, there are two different conversations that have to be held at the same time. And it’s difficult to do regarding this issue of impact. Because I do have some men who listen to this and men who are – not men who think that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote. However, they are not necessarily fully on board. Right? Like some of the men who are listening are like, I think you women are going a little bit too far. And part of the reason they listen is because I try to play devil’s advocate in, in specifically right in this moment.
So here we are talking about one man who made a statement that he agrees was a dumb thing to say. And then it was listened to or heard by at least – but let’s just imagine it was two women, one of the women was deeply offended. The other woman, let’s just imagine – you didn’t say this, but let’s just to make a really stark contrast – she thought it was funny. And had took no offense whatsoever, right?
So on the one hand, it’s really important to hold space and have the conversation that both of those women had reasonable responses. And it’s really important to make every assurance that neither woman is made to feel wrong. One woman was offended. One woman was humored. Both are reasonable responses. So we’re honoring the experiences of the impact on the one hand.
And then at the same time over here, like in this pregnant pause of like, “Oh fuck. What’s going to happen next?” is the dude. Like, “ah, okay, great. While you ladies are over there, like honoring both ends of the spectrum, I’m sitting here wondering like how hard you’re going to slam my nuts in a vice over what I just did. Like, am I going to get away with this? Am I going to get fired? Like, what the fuck’s going to happen to me next? What are y’all bitches going to do to me?” You know what I’m saying?
And so I think that without losing sight of the first conversation that it’s really important to honor the experience no matter what the, what the impact is – honor that it’s, it’s real. And at the same time, we are also in a moment where we are having to make determinations about what sorts of consequences men are supposed to have put upon them.
And it’s like, okay, so does he get a consequence based upon the woman who thought it was funny or based upon the woman who was deeply, deeply offended? Or is there something in the middle that is actually a third arbitrary purveyor of consequences, which is neither of the two victims? Which by the way, many advocates in this space would say is invalid, that the consequences always have to stem directly from the impact on the victim.
So what do you have to say about that, attorney Holley?
Meredith: So here’s what I think. I think that we make this really complicated.
Julia: That’s one one of my specialties, making things complicated.
Meredith: So there are so many areas where we resolve issues like this that aren’t complicated. So for example, when you’re talking about employee situations, most employees are at-will. Meaning most employees could be fired for anything that they do. So they can be fired for just being a bad salesperson, like having low sales numbers, wearing the wrong shirt.
And then what ends up happening is somebody makes a sexist comment at work and they get added protections to their job because of the topic. And so I think it’s just like if we can treat these comments like we would treat any other inappropriate comment and not suddenly say, you get added protection because you’re discriminatory, it would not be hard.
Julia: That is just a fascinating way of thinking about this. Please say more.
Meredith: So this is the example I usually give. This is something that I used to see all the time in different work environments. We have a shared fridge in the work room. Somebody eats my sandwich and I go to my boss and I say somebody ate my sandwich, I’m super mad about it. And the boss says, “Oh my gosh, that’s terrible. Let me send an email, remind people to eat their own sandwiches. Do you want me to order you something in? I’m sorry that happened.” Not confusing.
But now I have somebody come to me and say, your boobs look good in that dress. I go to my boss and I say, “This person said, my boobs looked good in this dress. I feel really uncomfortable. I don’t feel safe,” and the boss says, I will conduct an investigation.
Julia: I see. Okay. And so, and the root of what you’re describing there is that there is a common corporate culture that is in agreement that eating another man’s sandwich is an affront, but there is no such agreement that talking about a woman’s tits, even if she is your coworker, or God forbid your boss, there’s no agreement that that’s an affront.
Meredith: And there’s this idea that it triggers an investigation process before there’s any kind of discipline. With the sandwich, in most situations that I’ve ever seen, a supervisor doesn’t say, “Prove to me that you brought in a sandwich this morning. I’ll investigate whether you really brought in a sandwich this morning,” but related to the comment, we call it a, he said, she said, we’re not sure that any comment happened, it was a misunderstanding. We don’t know what happened. It’s very confusing and he deserves the protection of this really being investigated whether you’re lying or not.
Julia: But I think at the core of what was going on here is that there is not a fundamental agreement about what is offensive and what is not.
Meredith: I mean, here’s my experience. So my experience in working with the man who made the inappropriate comment about the massage. He sent this acknowledgement to the woman that he understands that his intent and his impact were different. And she posted it online and was so grateful and said, thank you, and this is exactly what I needed to hear.
And that was the end of the story. Most people want to be right so bad that we’re willing to sacrifice our jobs over it. So for example, his initial response was, no, I didn’t say that. Even though he knew he had said it, he was so defensive of himself. And then this created a whole tidal wave of trying to get to the truth of what happened. And then ultimately, if he could just say, “I totally agree. That was an inappropriate comment. Why would anybody say that?” He was aligning himself with the truth and with her and supporting her, and that really was all that needed to happen. It was done.
Julia: Okay. I love that that is where you went with that. Because that is the thing that needs to happen in every single man’s mind right now who is out there feeling threatened and unsafe and like, “Holy shit, these angry feminists are out to get me, man, and I didn’t do anything wrong. It wasn’t that bad. I don’t deserve to lose my job. I don’t deserve to have my life ruined over this.” They need to just acknowledge, Oh, I actually did something kind of shitty.
Meredith: Well. And do you want to be so committed to the comment that you made that you’re on the side of this comment that you agree wasn’t great? Or do you want to agree that it wasn’t great and be like, I don’t want to be like that?
The reality is that we’re all raised in a biased culture and we have human brains that have bias in them and thinking errors, and then if we can catch those and agree that we don’t want to be part of that, then we’re on the side of health. We’re on the side of cultural health, of improvement of anti-discrimination. But if we’re so committed that we can’t even acknowledge that we have a human brain that contains bias, we’re on the side of bias. No matter whether you punched somebody today because of the bias or whether you just made a comment that you would even agree was inappropriate.
Julia: So let me ask you, with regards to this man in particular, what precipitated his transformation? You said that his initial response was to deny and then he came around to acknowledging, okay, I did that and it was kind of sucky and I’m sorry.
Meredith: He thought he had to. He thought he had to deny it and that that was going to keep him safe. And that if he acknowledged it, and if he said, I don’t ever want to be like that, that something terrible would happen to him.
But literally the only thing that we wrote was what she said to me first. He said to me, “I made this inappropriate comment. I’m terrified that I made it. I don’t want to be like that.” I literally wrote what he said to me when he felt like he was in a safe space to say it.
Julia: Okay. Okay. So, so let me unpack what you just said, because this is so deep and it is so central to this fundamental dynamic of pushback and, and, and retaliatory mindset. So he thought that if he acknowledged that he had made an inappropriate comment, his goose would be cooked. And he thought he would be fired? Is that what he thought would happen to him?
Meredith: No. It wasn’t a employment situation. It was like a public event, but he owned a company and there was a lot of threat about public pushback regarding his company. So she was sort of a participant in that.
Julia: Okay. So this is actually kind of a “my life will be ruined, my reputation will be destroyed,” sort of a situation. Okay. So he is, as a prime example of this kind of a man who is, is just filled with so much – I’m going to use the word irrational – fear. But in his world, it was very real fear that if I say, if I acknowledge, if I allow them to get hold of this talking point that I said this thing, they’re going to ruin me.
Meredith: And the other thing is that there’s this narrative that evil people sexually harass and good people don’t sexually harass. Evil people are discriminatory. Good people are not. So if I acknowledge I made an inappropriate comment, it means I’m Harvey Weinstein. It means I’m part of the evil pack. Instead of really acknowledging that if 81% of women are reporting being sexually harassed, most of us have some form of this or another going on in our brains that we really need to identify and correct
Julia: So he was filled with fear that his reputation would be ruined if he allowed this thing to be acknowledged. What was it that caused him to seek you out? You as a lawyer. He sought you out in your capacity as a lawyer, right?
Meredith: Yeah. There just was public pushback. He got a letter from somebody who was a sponsor of his event, and they were saying, if you don’t fix this if you don’t resolve this, we can’t continue to sponsor your event.
But I will say he had this whole story about another man he had seen who he knew whose company was ruined because of a frivolous allegation, and he had a lot of evidence that this could ruin his life.
But then once I pointed out to him that he was actually defending this comment that he didn’t even agree was appropriate, he could totally see how he could just agree with the woman and align with her and say, “We support you. I do not want to be like that.” And he felt so much better about it. He was afraid, but he still felt so much better being on that side of things
Julia: And the outcome was terrific. She forgave him. She even publicly lauded him for having done the right thing. So if anything, his reputation was polished as a result. Okay. I love that. And I hope that the men who are listening are internalizing this story.
And I would imagine that some of what transpired in your office with this man where you said he was able to say to you how he really felt once he was in a safe space.
And so that gets to the heart of this second aspect of the work that you do. On the one hand, you’re a lawyer, and I think most of us understand what a lawyer is all about. But then there’s the second part to you where you are a certified life coach and you’re trained in cognitive behavioral therapy, correct?
Meredith: Well I’m not a therapist. I’m not a psychologist. So the life coaching principles that I use are derived from cognitive behavioral therapy.
Julia: Got it. So, so what I get is that, that an essential component to how you were able to facilitate this better than could have been anticipated outcome for this man and his community is because of the skills that you brought to the table around cognitive principles. and so speaking of that – and a great way to wrap up, if people are just enamored with you and your approach and your philosophies and they want to talk to you in your capacity as a lawyer or as a coach, you offer a consultation.
Meredith: We do. Yes. So the easiest way to sign up for a consultation is to schedule yourself on our calendar. We just, offer that on our website at https://ErisResolution.com and you just click on the link that says schedule a consultation. That goes to my colleague and she evaluates everything, and then I have a conversation with people if we feel like it’s a good fit.
Julia: Okay. And, are those, are those free consultations or is there a charge for that?
Meredith: It’s a free consultation.
Julia: Okay. Oh, well, gosh, it’s been wonderful to talk to you. it’s been illuminating and, interesting, and, funny.
Meredith: Yeah Funny harassment conversations.
Julia: well, you know, if you can’t laugh, what, what good is there? Right? So, yeah. So thank you so much for taking some of your time to talk and hopefully the conversation will continue.
Meredith: Yeah thank you so much.