Women Speakers: Avoid Sexual Abuse on the Road


The news is full of allegations of sexual abuse against women by men in the media. It prompted my friend to ask me if I had ever encountered inappropriate sexual advances. She told me she hadn't found one woman who didn't. I had to think for a minute. And then the situations started to surface-from the subway perverts to the inappropriate comments on the street or at work. Fortunately, my job was never compromised and I didn't have to make those hard choices.

As women professional speakers, we work for ourselves but it means that we encounter a lot of different decision-makers and travel to a variety of venues. We don't often hear our female speakers talking about this subject. Maybe it's not prevalent for keynoters whose business model is often "one and done". Regardless of the business model, women will encounter unwanted advances in their travels. How you present yourself can be a deterrent or invitation.

 Here are some thoughts on how to avoid these situations:

Protect your reputation. You are always on stage even when the show is over. Don't show favoritism to any particular gentleman before or after the speech. The reverse can happen. One male speaker spent time speaking to a woman after his speech. He was chastised for 'trying to pick her up". That wasn't the case. She approached him with questions and he thought he was being helpful by conversing instead of rushing out of the ballroom. Rumors start quickly. Be friendly, not flirtatious.

Don't get into an elevator with a male partner when retiring for the night. When co-training, wait until there is a group entering the elevator or wait for the next one. All it takes is one person to see you and your speaking partner get in the elevator together. Ask for rooms on separate floors.

Do not dress provocatively. Aim for professionally attractive-not sexy. It's tempting for women to dress up for a cocktail hour and want to look like a glamazon. We can still look beautiful without the cleavage, slit skirt, and bare back.

Socialize in groups instead of pairing off. We all want to network with key people but if you spend the evening with Mr. Wonderful it may not be wonderful when you hear the talk the next day. Circulate and speak to as many people as possible.

Make an appearance but decline seedy invitations. Say no to strip clubs or other similar establishments. Sounds like common sense, right? If you're a convention speaker in a male-dominated industry, the guys will want to party. If you join them at strip clubs, you'll feel uncomfortable and probably have to ward off unwanted attention from them or the patrons of the establishment.

Never meet the meeting planner or host in his hotel room. If your prospect or client is staying at a hotel, agree to meet in the lobby or offer to take them to a restaurant of your choice. Once you meet in the room, you lose credibility. The question asked will be, "Why did she go to his room?"

Appear business-like. Whether the meeting is a sales call or for networking, bring a notebook and pen. Be cordial but let it be known from your behavior that this is a business meeting and not a date. For single women, if you're meeting with a group of men and you're the only female, it doesn't hurt to wear a wedding band. It may discourage their advances.

Limit yourself to one drink. In social situations, most people enjoy the cocktail hour. Alcohol can loosen inhibitions so know your limit. When I worked on Wall Street, holiday parties were a big drinking fest. I'm not much of a drinker, so I would attend the first party and start with something non-alcoholic. By the time I arrived at the last party, I'd have one glass of wine. It's easy to lose track so the one drink guideline can be a good way to stay alert and in control.

Put the car key in your hand when going to the parking lot. I find many women do this intuitively. By having your key in your hand before you enter the parking lot,  you'll avoid fumbling and digging through your bag. And there'll be less opportunity for someone to approach you from behind.

Have a strategy for off-color remarks. Some comments are intentional but others are a result of having too much to drink. The person may need to save face if the remarks were not intended.  Some women laugh it off and walk away. If you have the wit of Joan Rivers, you can deliver a quick comeback. Or you can choose to "not hear " it and immediately introduce them to someone else at the event. (John, have you met Roy?)

When dealing with unwanted comments, get very serious. Confront the perpetrator by letting him know it's not appropriate. One woman was asked about her weekend. She said that she went to the beach. The interviewer said, "I bet you look good in a swimsuit".  She looked at him quizzically and said "Excuse me?" That was the end of his remarks.

Even the most professional women may encounter unwanted advances when least expected. The best defense is to have a strategy.

What have you done to protect yourself from compromising situations?