Podcast Episode 60: Dealing with Sexual Harassment and Sexism from Freelance Clients

Many freelancers, especially those who are women or belong to minority groups, will have had an experience of being patronised, not taken seriously, or harassed. Unfortunately, these kinds of oppressive behaviours can really have a negative effect on a person’s health and wellbeing, as well as their business. In my own experience, and that of Lorrie’s, this can be a particular risk in sectors which have traditionally been male-dominated, but it can happen anywhere, so in this podcast we talk about how freelancers can recognise when they are being treated inappropriately, and what they can do when it happens.

Show Notes

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Transcript

PW: Hello and welcome to a Little Bird Told Me, the podcast where two freelance writers tell you all the tricks of the trade. We talk about the highs, the lows, and the no-nos of successful self-employment, saving you from mighty embarrassment and mortifying mistakes, and guiding you to the very top of your chosen profession.

PW: Freelancing is amazing, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Tune in to the podcast every week, and if you go to alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com you can subscribe to ensure you never miss an episode. Whether iTunes, an RSS podcatcher or Stitcher Smart Radio are your platform of choice, we’ve made it really easy to sign up and be the first to hear our latest words of wisdom. There, you will also find any links we mention, our own websites and social media feeds, and the A Little Bird Told Me Facebook Page, too. I am Philippa Willitts…

LH:…and I’m Lorrie Hartshorn and today, we’re going to be talking about how to deal with clients who are chauvinist and/or patronising to you so horrible clients who talk down to you and may be trying to degrade you.

Freelance writing can be hard enough without clients trying to undermine you with negative behaviour patterns. Sadly, you can’t control how other people treat you – at least, not directly. What you can do, though, is learn certain ways of responding to behaviour like this that will help to nip the issue in the bud. It’s also worth assessing your own overall demeanour to see if there’s anything you can do to try and prevent clients trying this kind of stuff on with you in the first place.

PW: There are things you simply don’t have to put up with, but we can often blame ourselves or just think that it’s part and parcel of the job. You don’t, and it isn’t!

LH: No, and to be clear: it’s never your fault if someone else chooses to act unprofessionally. You’re not responsible for their behaviour, and you’re not responsible for changing someone else’s behaviour. But, to get along in business, and for the sake of your own health and wellbeing, it’s good to have some strategies that may at least help to minimise the effect of patronising people’s actions on your sense of self. Now as Pip says, it can be part and parcel of the job – dealing with horrible people. Our hope is not just to give you some tips and tricks for dealing with people like this, but also to let you know that you’re not on your own.

Now, typically patronising or condescending people tend to latch on to people who they perceive as easy to victimise. This may be because of something they see (or think they see) in their target’s personality, or it may be chauvinist behaviour based on cultural or societal assumptions they have – for example, seeing women as less capable.

What we’re going to do in this episode is look at a few ways that condescending people operate, and explore some of the ways you can learn to cope a little better.

So, before we really get started, I want to interject with a little word of warning, and that’s that it’s important to remember that the client may not realise they’re being patronising, condescending or offensive to you.

PW: Yes, some people genuinely feel like they’re being helpful but it can come over as some weird paternalistic behaviour and the underlying sense is that they don’t take you seriously. However that’s not their intention – they just think they’re being super nice.

LH: While that doesn’t make it OK, it does mean that it’s worth taking a gentle stand before you go in with all guns blazing.

PW: Yes, the guns are a last resort! Hahaha! My words of wisdom for the world!

LH: Try words before guns. I think we could just end this podcast there. Now, it can be difficult to want to give clients the benefit of the doubt sometimes – particularly as freelance troubles tend weirdly to come along in clumps.

English: "Henpeck'd Club's peace box No.6...

English: “Henpeck’d Club’s peace box No.6”: a 19th century wife-soothing cradle – errant husbands for the use of – from a Bradford public house men’s club: in Keighley Stories gallery, Cliffe Castle Museum, Keighley, West Yorkshire, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You might be reaching the end of your tether with a few people at the same time – but you have to treat everyone fairly if only for the sake of your business, and make sure you’re not taking out your frustrations with something or someone else out on the person in question. Sometimes, I’ll have had a bad week or month and will find myself being like, “That’s it. Had enough. Zero tolerance. NO MORE!” but then I have to be careful that the next client who comes along and maybe puts their foot in it a little bit – say with an unfortunate remark – doesn’t get shot on sight!

PW: Yes, this happens in life as well you might have been in a busy city centre on a Saturday afternoon and your patience is wearing thin, and then one person bumps into you and they get it all, and it’s not about them, it’s about the build-up.

LH: So yes, when a client is patronising or condescending towards you, it can be really tempting to just get in there and stick up for yourself – particularly if you feel like you’ve been treated , or feel like allowed yourself to be treated, poorly in the past.

But, as I say, the client might not realise. They might think (and I think this applies in a sadly large number of cases) that they’re being funny and controversial and edgy, or they might just be having a bad day or week, and be responding to that by talking down to you in a bid to buoy themselves up. It’s not OK, but it’s not necessarily malicious or personal to you.

So, rather than retaliating with rude remarks, it’s important to take the opportunity to approach these things carefully and, if appropriate, implement some changes.

PW: So, some examples of the kinds of situations in which this kind of behaviour can occur: from personal experience, the worst experiences I’ve had of being patronised have been at in-person networking events. They can feel very much like an ‘old boys’ network’ – they can be quite dominated by older men who all know one another and pat each other on the back on a job well done. I attend quite a few, but when I turn up as a new woman, I get the feeling I’m being patted on the head like, “Well done, you.”

Another situation in which I’ve encountered this – and I suspect Lorrie has as well, because, for a certain amount of our work, we do work in areas that could be classed as typically male-dominated areas – is in early contact with clients. It can be hard for the people to whom I speak to take seriously that my gentle female brain could possibly understand all that scary tech stuff.

LH: Yeah, with a lot of the clients that I work with, the only women in the company are support, reception or canteen staff, so I’ll often find that men in these companies have a slight expectation that I’ll support them in their work. I’ve had people ask me to print things out for them, and to make them a coffee.

PW: I’ve been asked to Google things for men.

LH: I’ve been asked whether I’ll stay on the phone with them and direct them as they drive, which is obviously part of my content marketing work. It’s always menial, administrative work, and it’s always friendly-friendly until you say “No.”

PW: Yeah

LH: There’s very much this attitude that you’re too big for your boots if you don’t want to do their secretarial work. Or that you don’t know your place.

PW: Yes, behaviour that would be seen as assertive in men – accepted and seen as positives. When a woman does them, it can be seen as uppity.

LH: I’ll give an example later about just how negatively it can be taken when you do assert yourself. And we’re going to give those examples just so you can see how if you get in this situation and you’re being treated like a pariah, you may not actually have done something wrong, you may just have asserted yourself in a situation where people aren’t comfortable with that.

PW: Yeah, so these kinds of situations where we might find ourselves patronised or dealing with outright sexism – we’ve mentioned new clients and networking events, but they really can happen everywhere. And so what we’re going to look at now are some of the specific behaviours you might want to look out for.

LH: Absolutely. Being patronised is sometimes quite hard to spot. You might just think, “I’m not comfortable with this – why am I feeling this way?”

PW: Yes, or is this just their personality?

LH: Or is it a tone thing – did I just take this the wrong way? Am I just being over-sensitive? And the problem with that is that it’s the very basis of some people’s condescending behaviour – they’ll do things to undermine you in a way that leaves them open to saying, “No, you’re just taking it the wrong way; you’re being over-sensitive.” This is called gas-lighting, which can be quite a difficult concept to describe. The Wikipedia definition is as follows:

“Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity. Instances may range simply from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.

The term “gaslighting” comes from the play Gas Light and its film adaptations. The term is now also used in clinical and research literature.”

PW: Yeah, so something might happen that feels inappropriate to you, but if you bring it up later, you might be convinced that you’re being ridiculous, or that it didn’t happen in the way you remembered it…

LH: Or that it didn’t happen at all.

PW: Indeed. And once you know the concept, it can be easy to spot.

LH: So gaslighting is just one of the ways people can undermine you. If you feel like you’re being treated badly, it’s important that you start to try and get examples of the behaviour so you can back up your complaints. If you find concrete examples, it’s good for your own mental state – being gaslighted is something that typically happens to women because we’re taught not to be confrontational.

PW: I think that applies to everything we’ve said and are going to say in this episode, I think. We’re not saying that these things don’t happen to men – there may well be men who are listening and can relate to everything that we’re saying.

LH: That doesn’t make you less ‘manly’ either.

PW: Not at all. Now, another example of the kind of behaviour you need to look out for is your knowledge and experience not being taken seriously. If you find there are assumptions that you don’t know what you’re talking about, or if you’re getting work that you know you could be doing more detailed or better work for them, or simply that someone doesn’t believe that you’re capable of doing what you say you can. It can be very common, particularly in male-dominated sectors.

LH: Very much – and that can extend to micromanaging as well. If you find that your work is coming back with tiny amends and changes and “could you check this, and could you check this, and I’m not sure about this, and could you let me know how you’re getting on…” all the time, and you feel like someone’s piling on top of you, that can start to damage your confidence as well as your relationship with the person you’re working for.

PW: In a workplace I used to work in many years ago, the boss was a full-on tyrant. He fired a woman for bringing him the wrong kind of coffee. I was a receptionist there and he fired my predecessor for putting through a call he didn’t want to take. Thankfully I was there on a temporary contract, so I could distance myself from it, but if that’s your situation in the day-to-day…you may find you have a client who demands things be done in a certain way, using fear and aggression, and that’s another thing to look out for.

The final kind of behaviour we want to look at is out and out sexual harassment. This can also be quite hard to define, so I’ve looked up what the Equality and Human Rights Commission. So, according to EHRC, sexual harrassment is defined in two ways:

The first type is unwanted conduct on the grounds of your sex – which is basically being treated badly because you are a woman (or a man). An example of this could be if you are being bullied at work and the harasser would not treat somebody of the opposite sex in this way. This doesn’t have to take a sexual nature; it just has to be being treated badly on the basis of your gender.

The other type, probably more well-known is unwanted physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature. This is against the law in the UK at least and it can include comments about the way you look which you find demeaning, indecent remarks, questions about your sex life, sexual demands by a member of your own or the opposite sex. Also, incidents involving touching and other physical abuse are criminal offences and should also be reported to the police.

The conduct must be done with the purpose of, or have the effect of, violating your dignity, or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for you.

And so this is all about the things that make you feel uncomfortable. It’s often not a blatant assault situation – it’s related to being gas-lighted as we mention earlier.

LH: yes, it could be a sexist joke by email…

PW: Yup, having topless posters in the office. You don’t have to think, “Well, no one’s grabbed my breasts, so it can’t be sexual harassment.”

LH: Yes, if you feel uncomfortable and you feel it may be related to your gender, it may be sexual harassment – it’s that simple.

PW: Yes, exactly. So we’ve outlined some of the situations you might find yourself in, so now we want to look at how to react to these situations.

Now, in terms of patronising clients, which I often encounter as a woman who specialises in technical and SEO and social media topics, my favourite way to react to them is simply to prove them wrong. If someone doesn’t believe that your fragile female brain could possibly handle writing that physics textbook or providing blog posts for a structural engineering website, then let your expertise shine. And the best way to do this is by showing rather than telling – write what they want, and do it exceptionally well. There’s nothing I enjoy more than starting to work with someone who’s clearly concerned that my gender will make me a bad tech writer, then witnessing them grudgingly start to accept that I know what I’m doing when I submit work on EdgeRank or Google authorship and it is clear that I fully understand my subject. Those people often end up being my biggest cheerleaders, funnily enough.

LH: It’s sad though, isn’t it – good and bad in the same breath because when they start being your cheerleader, it’s usually because they think, “Oooh, women are normally terrible at tech writing, but this one’s alright!”

PW: Hahaha!

LH: It’s enjoyable but you shouldn’t have to do it, should you? So in terms of coping, we want to highlight some direct coping methods – ways to deal with the situations themselves – and indirect coping methods – things you can do behind the scenes to strengthen yourself if you’re dealing with something like this.

Sexism abounds

Sexism abounds (Photo credit: ianqui)

Now, first off with the direct coping methods – you can let the snark slide and get what you can from the communication. And what I mean by that is while patronising, passive aggressive or sarky comments can make you justifiably cross, if you want to continue a working relationship with that client, it’s good to try and get what you can from the comments they’re making and ignore the crap basically. Now, I’m not a big fan of letting people off with bad behaviour, but if it’s a one-off, this could work. By distilling the meaning from their words, you may be able to prompt the client to communicate in a more appropriate way in future.

So, if a client says to you – and this is an example I’ve seen online – that they know never to ask you for anything on a Friday because you never get it done until the following week, you can respond by asking a simple question about meaning.

Often, patronising people will actually be embarrassed by someone acting professionally in the face of their condescending ways – it gives them nowhere to go, and gives you the comfort (it might not feel like much comfort!) of inhabiting the moral high ground.

So, if snarky client makes a passive-aggressive dig about you not completing work you receive on a Friday until the following week, you can respond with something like:

“Like with most businesses, I don’t ordinarily work weekends and I charge extra for doing so. However, if you’re saying to me that you need the work you send to me on a Friday turned around within a few hours or returned to you on the Saturday or Sunday, then I need to know.”

That puts it back on them, then.

PW: Yes, and sometimes just a little bit of snark can work wonders – say, asking them if they’re working the weekend, too. Not too much, but just enough to reframe it for them – I’ve seen writers do it as well when they’re asked to work for free. So if you just reframe it for the client by asking them if they’re working the weekend, it might well prompt them to think, “Oh, hang on – I like my weekends, there’s no reason she wouldn’t feel the same way.”

LH: Absolutely.

PW: And if someone’s really hard to work with, you can sometimes speak to their superior – obviously this isn’t possible if it’s a one-person business. If someone remains difficult to work with you can request a new contact in the same company.

In most businesses, you might want to speak to the marketing manager or the PR director, or even Human Resources, depending on who you know. Sometimes, speaking to someone’s superior can help resolve a situation.

LH: Yes, it’s important to remember that in this podcast, we’re not just talking about clients who are a pain in the bum. We’re talking specifically about people who are chauvinist, which means that they view you as inferior as you’re a member of a group they view as inherently beneath them. So, it might be because you’re a woman, or a person of colour, or because you have a disability or because you’re LGBT.

PW: Yes, all sorts of reasons. Or even a man who doesn’t fit with typical masculine behaviour can find himself victimised.

LH: Yes – I think it’s important to make it clear that this is the kind of situation we’re talking about – not just people who are annoying. And if you’re going to report someone to their superior for chauvinist behaviour, you ideally need to go through the advice we’ve given earlier – such as taking notes and keeping records of the behaviour.

PW: Now if you’re dealing with sexual harassment as we described earlier, there’s a website called The Muse and they’ve outlined some pretty sensible advice for dealing with sexual harassment as a freelancer. Now, it’s always hard; as Lorrie said earlier, these are things you need to do but that can start to impose on women and victims of this that they’re doing something wrong if it happens. So I think we both want to make clear that this is advance that, ideally, you’ll take but if you can’t manage it or if you haven’t done it in the past, it’s still not your fault – if it’s happening, it’s always the fault of the person who’s doing it.

So anyway, this is some fairly standard advice for dealing with sexual harassment as a freelancer. So, number one: avoid one-on-one situations. Get them to bring someone to a meeting, or bring someone along yourself. As far as you can, avoid being alone with them.

LH: If you can’t bring someone along, maybe have a Skype meeting. Or just go somewhere busy. And something I tend to do is have breakfast meetings rather than dinner meetings – they’re harder to misconstrue by people who want to misconstrue things, they’re unlikely to have too much wine, and you have a good excuse to leave.

PW: Yup – so number two: clearly decline all advances. Some of this advice is a bit questionable as it talks about sending mixed messages. Now, we know that people who sexually harass don’t do it because they’re getting mixed messages – they do it because they have a point to prove, or because they’re feeling undermined, or they’re just aggressive and rude and enjoy having that power over people. So while I do agree that you should clearly decline all advances, I’m sceptical of some of the reasoning on this particular site. However, it suggests things like letting your client know you are in a committed relationship. Again, you might not want to bring private life into it but if you don’t mind doing that – or even if you want to lie about it – that can help to ward off advances.

LH: Definitely. You may feel that they shouldn’t be doing this even if I have a partner and you’re right. But we’re saying that if you want to do these things, if you feel comfortable doing them and if it makes your life easier, you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. If this helps, by all means.

PW: Point number three, as Lorrie mentioned earlier: keep records. If you write down every time something happens, even small things, if something makes you uncomfortable, write down what you have experienced. If you have everything listed in a notebook then if you do need to escalate the situation, this will really make a difference to your case.

Point number four: decide whether or not to report it. If it happens once and you’ll never have to deal with the person again, you might choose not to. Or, you might feel that you won’t deal with them again but other women will, so I’m going to report it. If it’s ongoing, then I think there’s more motivation to report just to try and stop it happening. As always, it’s your choice.

Point number five: be prepared to walk away. They say, “If the behaviour doesn’t stop, be prepared to walk away. Believe me—even if this is a big client, or if you’re a struggling entrepreneur, it’s better to miss out on a business opportunity than to risk your comfort.”

LH: Thanks for missing out the word “reputation” there!

PW: Well, I know!

LH: That’s what made me go “Uuuuuugh!”

PW: Listeners: what the document actually says is “it’s better to miss out on a business opportunity than to risk your comfort.” Now, I missed out reputation because I feel that’s fully wrong.

LH: Yes, you’re not some tainted person because you’ve been sexually harassed.

PW: No, the only person whose reputation should be at risk is the person doing the harassing. So yes, I stand by their advice, but only when I’m talking about comfort.

LH: Definitely. Being harassed can be extremely stressful – it’s designed to make you feel uncomfortable; that’s the whole thing about harassment. While it’s happening and afterwards, you might be questioning yourself, worried, concerned, violated, upset, anxious and angry. And you have to decide whether, if the person won’t stop harassing you, you should walk away. And we’re not saying it’s easy – it might be a really important client to you in terms of work or finances. It’s a bitch – it’s a total kick in the teeth. It’s not fair, it’s not right, but all you can decide is who you’re prepared to deal with.

PW: Yeah, like Lorrie says, we know this isn’t idea. If someone brings in 50% of your income, it’s hard to drop them but your wellbeing is far more important and there are other clients. If you drop this client, you can look for others and maintain your comfort and welbeing.

LH: Even after years and years of freelancing, Pip and I both stil have moments where we’re basically feeling gas-lighted – I’ll email and say, “Someone sent me this email saying such-and-such…it’s made me uncomfortable, is it a bit weird?” And immediately, Pip will be able to say, “Oh my God, that’s horrible!”

PW: It can be really tricky to know if you’re being over sensitive.

LH: Yes, especially when it’s you – you’d be so much kinder to someone else than you’d be to yourself.

PW: And it’s easier to tell if it’s someone else. So, if Lorrie forwards me an email and says, “Is this ok…?”, I can see instantly whether it is or it isn’t, whereas if I receive it, I might need to get guidance from someone else.

LH: Yup – the closer you are, the harder it is to see the bigger picture.

PW: Now, another way to deal with this kind of situation is to disagree or challenge it straight on.

LH: When a client is behaving condescendingly towards you – and this applies more to patronising clients rather than sexual harassment – you can take it one step further than ignoring the tone and continuing the conversation by actively disagreeing with what the client is saying.

Speaking from my own experience, I had a client with whom I didn’t get on well at all. He would constantly refer to my work in degrading ways, saying things like, “Well, go and tweet, or whatever it is you do…”.

PW: Ooooooohhh!

LH: He was part of a company I worked for and one day, when I was producing some promotional literature for them, he got involved in the process. Everyone else had signed off the work but this particular man kept getting back in touch with me wanting to alter the order of bullet points, quibbling over synonyms for various words and then switching them back again. This went on for 16 rounds of amends – I kid you not. Now, while there’s no way I’d entertain something like that now, I was more easily intimidated some years ago, so I kept trying to get the document “right”.

Eventually, though, the client sent over a snarky email about how I didn’t know how to write, and a link to some random website about how to write copy. I’m actually quite grateful now that he did because I got straight back to him on the phone and fully disagreed with him. No shouting, no abuse, just facts: I’d been writing for years. I have a languages degree. I have A-Levels in languages. I have a lot of happy clients. He was the only person in the company who was unhappy with the writing. The only things he was unhappy with were things that he’d changed and then changed back again. By unpicking his argument bit by logical bit, I left him with nowhere to go. He was disciplined internally and I never had to deal with him again.

PW: And sometimes, that’s how it has to be. And so what we’ve looked at are ways of reacting to patronising and outright harassing clients. We’ve looked at proving them wrong, doing such a good job that they stop being sceptical. We’ve looked at being more direct, and we’ve looked at things like avoiding certain situations, making a note of behaviours, reporting or not, and walking away.

What we want to look at now are some more indirect coping methods – this is more, at the end of the day and you get in a hot bath and you feel really bothered by what’s happened…that’s this bit!

LH: That’s definitely this bit, and the first thing we want to look at is self-care, which is looking after yourself. You can’t overestimate the importance of this. When you’re a freelancer that’s particularly important because you are your business.

PW: Yes, when I had flu’ a few weeks ago, Lorrie had to tell me very firmly to stop working because, despite how ill I was, I felt this massive responsibility to my clients. And in this case it took someone else – in this case Lorrie, because we work so closely together – to tell me to stop and kind of give me permission to be ill. But in other workspaces, if I’d been that ill and gone to work, I’d have been sent home.

LH: As a freelancer, it’s really scary when you’re ill because you kind of shut your business down.

PW: So those kinds of things can be harder when you’re a freelancer.

LH: Definitely, which brings us on to the first point of self-care, really, which is getting support from other people. Whether that’s a fellow freelancer, a friend, a partner, a parent, a family member, or whether you just go on a freelancer forum and tell everyone you’ve had a really shitty day, and explain what’s happened, and get some advice. Feeling less isolated is a very good way to take the hot air out of a very unpleasant balloon – it lets you know that the person causing the problem isn’t all powerful; even if they’re one of your most important clients now, you may forget them in a few years. If you have to get rid of them, it’s OK – you’re not alone.

PW: And the real advantage of that kind of external validation is that it helps you put things in perspective. If you’ve spent eight hours having a back and forth with a patronising client, then going for a drink with some friends in the evening will just remind you that there are other things in the world.

LH: And they may laugh at your stories, and you may realise how ridiculous the person is. That can sometimes help – you can have that rant turns into a laugh moment and it can really help. As we said at the start of this podcast, you can’t control anyone else’s behaviour so while you can’t stop someone being a muppet to you, you can change the way you feel about it.

PW: Yup. And other ways to implement some self-care are kind of clichéd, but that’s probably because they’re quite effective. If you’ve got loads of demands looming, lock yourself in the bathroom and have a nice hot bath, have a glass of wine if that’s your kind of thing, have a massage, or if you’re really busy, just take a concerted break for a really nice cup of tea.

LH: Absolutely – you need to say to yourself, “I’m going to take a 15 minute break because I deserve to take a 15 minute break” It’s about the state of mind you’re in. You need to be kind to yourself when someone else is being unkind. Think to yourself: would I let someone treat my friend this way?

PW: Yes, that’s always a very telling thought exercise.

LH: Yes, we’re often kinder to other people than we are to ourselves, and we internalise the messages we receive and think that we really must be bad freelancers. Which brings me on to another point I want to make: if you have one client who treats you like dirt and others who are happy, phone them up. Don’t talk about the situation, just have a catch up and soak up the positive messages.

PW: It’s a way to remind yourself that you deserve to be treated respectfully.

LH: Absolutely – shoot the breeze with them, then talk a bit of business. Give them your energy if you can. Give them really excellent customer service – and that could not just make you feel better, it could actually make a positive change for your business. You may remind a client of your deal on press releases, or blog articles. Just having a nice chat with someone will remind you that you’re a professional, you’re a human being and you deserve to be treated with respect.

PW: Yup. Now if you find that you go through those thought exercises and realise you’re being treated badly, but you might now feel that you have any confidence to stick up for yourself.

LH: What you can do in these situations is investigate either formal or informal assertive or confidence training. There are people out there who offer this as a specific skill. And if you’re a woman freelancer, there are consultants out there who offer this specifically for women and the challenges we face – there’ll be someone out there to suit you.

Five ways to fight sexual harassment(public se...

Five ways to fight sexual harassment(public service poster on a Seoul Subway Line 2 train) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

PW: When I was at University, during World Mental Health Week, there was a series of workshops provided, and I went to a Women’s Assertiveness session. It was only like an hour – not an intensive thing. But mainly what I remember was this one exercise where we went round the group and everyone had to say no. Now, this was a group of University-educated women, reasonably privileged, and yet nearly all of us found it hard to shout “No!”  And that wasn’t even to someone, or in a difficult situation – right after being given permission to shout “No!”, we all cringed a bit and it really highlighted how hard we try to be accommodating.

LH: We really are – and it may be that you’re fortunate enough to be in the position of being able to invest in some personal training. If not, have a look online, see if there are women’s networking events in your local area. If there are any other events if you’re not a woman or you don’t want to go for a gender-separate event. Or, there are assertiveness and confidence building exercises you can find online if you’re not very confident with in-person events. Try and surround yourself with positive people, whether online or in person.

PW: They recommended a book during that training, called “A Woman In Your Own Right” by Ann Dixon, and I’ll pop a link to that in the show notes. So as we mentioned earlier, there are times when it’s best to cut and run – to cut your losses and say “No, I’m not working with this person/company anymore.”

LH: Yes, I think it’s important to add at this point that although we’ve given a lot of advice and coping methods during this episode, if you have a one-off incident with one person and you think you can’t realistically cope with working with that person again, and you want to cut and run immediately, then do it.

PW: Do it. We’re not saying that if you’re in this situation, you must do A, B and C. We’re providing as many options as possible for what are terrible situations. So if half of what we say makes sense to you and half doesn’t, then stick with the half that makes sense to you.

LH: Definitely – do what you’re comfortable with. And although it’s not ideal to cut and run sometimes, you might just feel like you’ve got nowhere to go, in which case your answer is clear.

PW: Now, a time you might want to do this is if it becomes unbearable. Maybe that’s one incident, maybe it’s ongoing. But if you get to the point where you’re dreading the phone ringing, or you’re dreading getting an email from someone, dreading a meeting with that person, you need to get out, frankly.

LH: Yes. Feeling nervous and negative is OK sometimes, but when you’re actively dreading any interaction with a company or person, it’s time to assess whether there’s anything to be done. It’s important to prioritise your health and wellbeing. Pip and I aren’t flippant about money – we’ve both been in situations where we’ve lived hand-to-mouth, so we’re not particularly privileged in that respect – we’ve both had lives that have not been secure at all, but money isn’t anything. If you need to see which benefits you can claim, do that. If you need to talk about getting a loan, look into that. It’s not ideal to get rid of a client if you really need the money, but your health is more important.

PW: You can replace clients. There will always be a million companies needing a writer, but what you can’t replace is your mental health. This isn’t something to mess about with.

LH: Absolutely – so what we’ll end on really is that it’s a good idea to keep your business development ticking over. Even if you love the clients you’ve got any don’t want more clients, it’s always good to have a finger on the pulse because then you’re not so powerless.

PW: Yes, marketing has to be fairly consistent because things change all the time. A few weeks ago, a couple of my big pieces of work came to an end. They were big but they weren’t ongoing. So they’d accounted for a lot of my income for a while but they both came to an end around the same time, and that’s the kind of situation where you don’t want to go, “Oh, my income!”

LH: Absolutely. And you need to be able to respect yourself. There’s nothing disrespectful about being harassed or talked down to, but if you find that the only reason you’re keeping a client on is because you have no other clients to rely on – and you find you’re allowing certain behaviours simply because you need the money – then it’s a good time to start looking for other clients. I can recommend LinkedIn, Twitter etc. If you need to get on one of the freelancing sites, or contact marketing agencies, or temping agencies, or look for part- or full-time employment, that’s all better than allowing someone to subject you to behaviour that’s damaging to you.

PW: You might be listening to this from a male point of view and/or as a client. So we just want to take a quick look at what men can do to make sure that people around them aren’t uncomfortable.

I remember, I was walking home one night and I was in a dark side street and there was a man walking behind me. As a woman, I was very aware of my safety. When I got home, I asked on Twitter: “Women: would you find this situation threatening?” and they all said they would. Then I asked men whether they would be aware of that – and almost all of them said they wouldn’t.

And so it’s important to start thinking about situations that you may not perceive as potentially threatening and double-checking whether you might be making someone uncomfortable. Do you ever protectively put your arm around someone’s shoulder when you don’t know them that well? Do you make risqué jokes. Some people are deliberate harassers but a lot of these situations may be you – it may not have occurred to you that you’re being patronising, or that insisting someone goes for a drink with you may be pushy or threatening.

LH: Absolutely. It’s a good idea to check your behaviour, particularly in the case of friendly overtures, and ask yourself, “Would I do this to a guy?”

I went on a reccy mission to see some new equipment at a client company and one of the staff members there tickled me on the breast.

PW: Everything is wrong with that.

LH: Everything. Everything is wrong with that. I’m nearly thirty, I’m a professional and I’m not someone’s bloody hand-puppet! But can you imagine if you did that to a guy? You’d get punched. He was much older than me so I can’t work out if he was being pervy or weirdly paternalistic…but I gave him a dirty look and moved away and made it clear I wasn’t happy, but he may just have thought he was being friendly.

PW: Another thing to look out for if you’re not sure whether women are comfortable with you is whether they avoid being alone with you, or you have a bit of a reputation. Things like that can tell you a lot.

LH: And I think, as long as you’re aware, you’re probably doing better than a lot of people. And there’s nothing to stop you saying, “I hope everything’s OK, I didn’t mean anything by that comment, I’m sorry if it came out wrong.” If you’ve got good intentions, I don’t know many people who won’t give you the benefit of the doubt. We’re not suggesting that you start worrying about being accused about harassment by women, just make sure you’re not singling women out for treatment you wouldn’t apply to men.

PW: Yes, and if you do get some feedback that’s hard to take, don’t dismiss it – actually listen and question yourself.

LH: Yes, I know we’ve talked a lot about men and women a lot today – Pip and I are both women, and it’s something that really does happen. It’s a big issue in the workplace. But there are other dimensions – people with disabilities, people who are gay, non-white, trans…and we can all muck up and cause offence and it’s never nice to hear it. No one’s immune to that but you have to listen to what you’re being told.

PW: Yeah, if someone offends me and I tell them – and tell them why – and they automatically start defending themselves without listening, then that’s annoying. If they say, “I’m really sorry, I hadn’t thought it through, I won’t do it again.” Then that’s it – fixed.

LH: So to sum up: the aim isn’t to wrestle an apology from someone or force them to become the kind of person you’d want to be best friends with. The objective here is to nip any damaging behaviour from the client to you in the bud and to move on – if possible – to have a friendly, dignified and professional working relationship.

PW: Essentially, what you want is a working relationship that does not demean or insult you, in which you are able to thrive and get on with your work in the way you do best. Like Lorrie says, you don’t need to socialise with difficult clients, or turn them into a feminist activist, you just want the best professional relationship you can muster.

LH: Absolutely. If getting an apology from a rude, irritating, patronising or otherwise PITA client is really important to you, it’s worth reassessing your priorities, frankly. From experience, it’s neither realistic nor sensible to go chasing an apology from a client. Even just one who’s been slightly annoying. Instead, just chase better behaviour in future.

PW: So now it’s time for the Little Bird Recommendation of the Week, in which Lorrie and I mention something we’ve spotted that might be of interest. So, Ms Hartshorn, what’s your recommendation this week?

LH: My recommendation this week is just a cute and interesting infographic, called Online In 60 Seconds and it says, “On the internet, we all know things can move at a lightning fast pace. In just a minute, you can read and compose a few tweets, along with look at a dozen Facebook photos. That said, we’ve pulled together this infographic to give you an updated view of everything that happens online in 60 seconds in 2013.”

And it’s set up like a wheel or clock, and in each segment, there’s a different social media platform, or website, or activity. And it outlines exactly what goes on in one minute for that platform or website. So, email: 204 million emails are sent each minute. 278,000 tweets. Professional searches on LinkedIn: 11,000 per minute. Skype – as we’re on there at the moment – 1.4 million minutes connecting with one another.

PW: To be fair, it’s probably 0.4 million people talking and 1 million trying to connect.

LH: Or just 1.4 million people going, “Hellooooo! Can you hear me?”

PW: Hahaha, yes! Now, I really like this infographic, but there’s just one thing bugging me: all the segments are the same size.

LH: You’re such a purist! It’s supposed to be a clock!

PW: I know but it’s annoying me!

LH: God, Philippa – you’re so technical!

PW: Haha, I know!

LH: Well, that’s it – whatever your recommendation is, I’m going to find fault with it. Go on, then.

PW: My recommendation this week has changed at the last minute. I was going to share an interesting blog post I’ve found but instead, I’m going to share something I spotted on Twitter just before we started recording. Now, this is a website called Sharegrab and it’s potentially really useful for your social media marketing. Now what Sharegrab does is you sign up with your Facebook account and input some Facebook pages from your main competitors or from incredibly successful people in your field.

And what Sharegrab does is analyse those and tell you which got the most views, shares etc. So if you need some inspiration on what to post, you can start to analyse other people’s success and get some ideas. Like I said, I’ve signed up but I’ve not had the chance to do anything with it yet, but it comes recommended by Ian Cleary, who’s very good with social media tools.

LH: Definitely. Were I not committed to loathing you for all eternity, I might sign up. As it is, I won’t.

PW: And it’s free.

LH: No interest to me. And so, now that Pip has outdone my recommendation again, that brings us to the end of episode 60. Whether there’ll be an episode 61, who knows? Maybe we’re finished.

PW: And while Lorrie gets all dramatic, I want to ask – are you doing NaNoWriMo?

LH: Ooooh, yes! OK, I’ll leave aside our massive feud – I’ve forgiven you now. Listeners – are you doing NaNoWriMo?

PW: Yes – if you are, or you’re thinking about it, go to alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, scroll down to episode 58 – we went into real detail about how to cope with the task of writing a novel in a month. Have a listen, share it on your blog, share it on Twitter.

LH: And if you do need some support throughout the month, we’re on Facebook.com/FreelanceWritingPodcast. We’ll keep you going just like caffeine all the way through the month of November until you have a 50,000 word novel!

PW: Well, exactly. And so, that’s it for episode 60. Do head over to alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com for all the links we’ve mentioned today. And remember to subscribe so you don’t miss another episode!

LH: Thank you so much for tuning in – we love recording this! We’ve had some lovely feedback, so if you’d like to hear us again next week, follow Pip’s advice and subscribe. In the meantime, I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn

PW: And I’ve been Philippa Willitts and we’ll see you next time.

 

About Philippa Willitts

British freelance writer and proofreader.

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