There are many ways to handle a bully in your workplace or professional life. “I’ll see you in court,” is one of them.
“Zip up my dress or I’ll deck you,” is another.
Those words belong to Australian media icon Kerri-Anne Kennerley. They’re clear, firm – and they worked.
Speaking to Mia Freedman on Mamamia’s No Filter podcast, Kennerley explained that she learnt quickly that standing up for yourself against sexual harassment when it happens is often the best way to deal with it. She noted that in the early part of her career (which commenced in 1967), there wasn’t a human resources department to turn to. No policies and procedures. And certainly, there were no laws against workplace discrimination and harassment for women.
Kerri-Anne talks to Mia about the time she threatened to “deck” her boss.
So when she found her dress being unzipped by her boss (the owner of the network), Kennerley knew she had to “draw that line in the sand” on her own. She told him, “zip up my dress or I’ll deck you”; a phrase which would become her standard response to repeated incidents of sexual harassment over the next few decades.
But what if someone feels they don’t have the confidence of Kerri-Anne Kennerley?
After 50 years in the television industry, the actress and host thinks that fighting spirit is a skill that all of us need to learn, even if it doesn’t come naturally. She states very clearly: “You have to learn to stand up for yourself without running to a court.”
“You’ve got to learn, ‘cos stuff happens, it’s not a matter of if, but it will…it’s been going on for donkey’s [years], things will never change, it’s how you handle them.”
Kennerley’s stance is a dose of pragmatic tough-love that we all need to hear. She’s suggesting confrontation. She’s suggesting an aggressive tone. It won’t be easy. But it’s got to be done.
Because, think of the alternative.
The alternative would be to allow the sexual harassment to proceed, possibly opening the door for it to happen again, and certainly destroying the confidence of the victim. So women need to apply, and protect, their confidence proactively. Legal recourse is not the first line of defense – you are.
When laws change or are introduced to protect individuals, it’s a recognition that certain types of behaviours are wrong, and it provides a vehicle for consequences for the perpetrator, which is fantastic – but it doesn’t stop harassment from happening. By the time a case gets to court, the damage to an individual has been done.
So what Kennerley is saying is that if you can stop it from happening in the first place by standing up for yourself, give it your best shot.
The court process itself isn’t simple. Because, as we’ve witnessed repeatedly, for example in the current case between Channel 7 and Amy Taeuber, sexual harassment cases are usually also played out in the media and the court of public opinion. Victims and whistle-blowers should have more backing from the community in 2017, and it’s definitely improving, but there’s a long way to go. So ultimately, women have got to back themselves, first.
Not only will it hopefully stop a bully in their tracks, it may also dissuade them from preying on others.
Another reason that many women don’t speak out against sexual harassment is because they can’t risk losing their jobs. But confronting a bully doesn’t necessarily mean putting a career at risk, as the stories of Ashley Judd and Lupita Nyong’o and Harvey Weinstein demonstrate. And if it does? It will have been worth it, if a predator hasn’t managed to destroy a woman in a way more fundamentally significant to their being than salary.
The more we practice standing our ground, the easier it will become – but women need to know that they are in fact allowed to do that. These days, we actively teach children that they are allowed to disobey adult instructions, that they are allowed to scream and yell at adults, that they are allowed to fight back against adults – that a gross imbalance of power doesn’t mean you are completely powerless.
We’ve got to take that same advice, and listen to our leaders like Kennerley, if we’re ever to conquer the workplace sexual harassment monster.
Listen to Mia’s full conversation with Kerri-Anne here:
This content was created with thanks to our brand partner Bad Moms 2.
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