Q: My partner, “Wanda,” works for an environmental engineering and construction oversight company. She provides third-party inspection services for general contractors to ensure that work sites are compliant with local and federal regulations.
Wanda has a degree in environmental science and extensive field experience. She is generally confident, well-spoken and professional, and easily establishes friendly relationships with co-workers. She is also young and attractive, and occasionally is harassed by men representing the companies that hire her to be there. What bothers her most are age- and gender-based comments that make her feel small and/or unintelligent.
Generally, the culprits are those trying to cut corners, as most of the general contractors understand the value of her input. Her co-workers, mostly men, have offered little support or advice when she has raised the issue.
Do you have any advice on dealing with this sort of harassment? She is occasionally alone during these encounters, so I worry about her safety, particularly if she were to call these men out. I also worry that she could face blowback in the form of lost contracts and retaliation from her own company.
A: Wanda is caught in that classic Catch-22: trying to prove she should be regarded no differently from her male peers while having to work around obstacles none of her male peers are likely to encounter.
Wanda’s employer is obligated to provide a safe working environment for all employees, and that extends to client interactions. If Wanda is concerned about her personal safety when conducting solo site visits, she should consider letting her managers and HR know that. They might propose a solution that offers her some backup without undermining her authority, such as having her bring a trainee along at no added cost to the client. But her employer might just decide that the easier solution is to pull her off site visits altogether.
But you’ve included a valuable nugget of information: “Generally, the culprits are those trying to cut corners.” When a client rep takes a swipe at her, she needs to immediately ask herself what he might be trying to distract her from, and pay even closer attention.
When debriefing her bosses and colleagues after site visits, Wanda could present these incidents not as a complaint but as a litmus test: “When clients make cracks about me being young and female, it almost always turns out they’re trying to cover up noncompliance. The site foreman today made some jokes along those lines, and sure enough, I observed that the client had [cite deficiency].”
By making the harassment incidental to the regulatory violation she’s been tasked with uncovering, Wanda makes it a work matter, not a personal one, and her youth and gender become a unique tactical advantage for sniffing out bad eggs.
No, it’s not fair that she should have to minimize the gender bias she faces for fear that her ability to perform her job effectively might be called into question. But if a repeat client continues or escalates harassment on subsequent visits, she’ll have the history, credibility and standing to report the behavior itself.