Venture capitalist Jillian Manus has had female entrepreneurs call her crying from the bathroom, the sidewalk, and from their cars after facing harassment from male VCs. Now people from across the country are learning about women’s experiences in the industry.
Manus acknowledges that venture capital provides a hyper-predatory scenario in which a woman is in an extraordinarily vulnerable position asking for money for her own company. But, Manus is quick to note that she’s seen this pattern in every industry she’s worked, from banking to media. She says we need a behavioral adjustment in all industries across the board, politics included.
Manus shared the advice she provides to women struggling to navigate a culture of harassment in entrepreneurship, but these strategies can be helpful in any industry.
After inappropriate treatment in pitch meetings with male investors, women call Manus feeling “shredded”, asking questions like, “How can they do that to me?” They begin to internalize the experience, wondering if the harassment they faced was due to their age, their inexperience or something specific they had done.
Manus is quick to tell them, “It is not your fault. That’s the biggest point I try to get through: it is not your fault.” She laments that as women second guess themselves, they relive the experience thinking, “‘I should’ve done this; I should’ve done that,’ and it breaks down their confidence, their being.” She consistently advises women to go easy on themselves: “Stop tearing yourself down. You’ll have 10 men in line to do that for you.”
In Manus’ perspective, this form of bullying has far more to do with men’s fragility than women’s. She emphasizes to women that “When a man harasses, belittles or bullies a woman, it’s because he is weak and insecure.” Rather than seeing herself as a victim when she faces harassment, Manus views it as an indication that he is a weak man who perceives her as a threat.
Despite the seriousness of these situations – or maybe because of it – Manus thinks humor is an important tool. She uses it both in supporting women and in navigating situations herself.
“Women will say to me, ‘They would never do this to you.’” Manus laughs at that, assuring them that she hasn’t developed a special force field or reached a point in her life in which it no longer happens. Quite the contrary, as she shares in the following story.
After spending 4 hours in a very high level meeting, a male decision-maker praised her for her fresh perspective, saying, “That was brilliant.” He told her he had one question that had been bothering him for the entire meeting, “I’ve been trying to figure out what color underwear you’re wearing.” She promptly responded, “It’s the funniest thing. That’s what I’ve been thinking this whole time about you.” He admitted, “Well played,” and they moved on.
Further illustrating her perspective that harassment is about insecurity and power, she says, “It doesn’t matter how brilliant we are. He’d already expressed that [he was impressed with my contributions]. But he had to end with that [comment] because he had to be the brightest person in the room. He wanted to take a wee bit of my confidence away.”
She used humor to fight back and remarks, “He zinged the cannon shot over to me, and I shot the cannon[ball] right back over his bow.” She makes it clear that she used humor deliberately to prevent this man from thinking he got to her, that he had won. She wrote him what she described as a blistering email afterward. He apologized, but she notes that “that unacceptable genie was already out of the bottle.”
Obviously, this approach won’t work for everyone or in every instance. While many of us wish we had Manus’ ability to quip back with a clever retort, I typically think of all the things I wish I had said after the fact. As I wash my hair that night or chat with friends over drinks weeks later I’m still lamenting, “I should’ve said XYZ!” But in those moments, more often I just freeze thinking, “WTF? WTF? WTF?”
Additionally, in some instances, engaging in the banter could escalate the situation or end up perceived as encouragement. But, the clever reply and email worked for Manus, and that’s what matters. Each situation is different and there’s no one “right” way to handle it, no special force field that will shut it down every time. (If there were, I’m sure Manus would fund it. I’m confident there’s a market.)
When possible, Manus encourages women to redirect the conversation, create humor around it to dispel it – see underpants example – or pretend to ignore it in that moment. After the fact, reaching out to a friend or mentor can help you process what happened and strategize about what to do if it happens again. Unfortunately/fortunately, Manus suspects you’ll likely find someone else who’s had a similar situation. That connection and shared experience can bring validation.
We can hope that the growing national conversation about power and sexuality in the workplace makes future harassment less common. Until then, whether you freeze completely, pivot to something else, or zing right back, remember that there’s no one “right” way to respond to these situations and that it’s not your fault.
A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.