A few weeks ago I spoke with Zoey, a 37-year old licensed attorney about the defense mechanisms she’s developed to cope with complicated workplace interactions. Zoey (a pseudonym to protect her identity) told me about an inappropriate text she got from a male colleague about her Halloween costume (she was a Ninja Turtle).
“Those moments […] can be so shocking and it’s fight or flight. And so to survive that moment you chuckle or whatever your defense mechanism is and then you go back to your office or your work space and you are just like, Did that just happen? And you sit with it and it affects you. I just shut down.”
If you or someone you know can relate to Zoey’s story, you should also know there’s a word for this – it’s called trajectory guarding, and it can potentially derail your career.
What is Trajectory Guarding?
Coined by Chloe Grace Hart, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, trajectory guarding is a series of strategies a person uses to ward off further unwanted interaction after an initial, sexually ambiguous encounter at work. It describes the subtle ways you alter your behavior to avoid being exposed to more explicit and potentially dangerous harassment, and the subsequent cost to your emotional wellbeing, and even your future opportunities to advance at work.
In a recent study, Hart interviewed 84 women and gender nonbinary people in the San Francisco Bay Area tech industry and found that “engaging in trajectory guarding was not only perceived as mentally taxing, but also a […] potentially costly strategy.”
To avoid further unwanted encounters, interviewees reported leaving work early or holding back in interpersonal interactions at work instead of confronting their offender or reporting the encounter, which led some to be penalized for changes to their workplace behavior. As one interviewee explained, leaving work early to protect against further unwanted sexually ambiguous encounters made her look bad in a work environment that prioritized staying late.
For many, trajectory guarding reflected poorly on “their capabilities, personality, or work ethic.” Interviewees also described the process as emotionally draining.
Reporting the inappropriate behavior can be just as costly though, as those who do can wind up in between jobs, struggling financially and without references to rely on in their next job search. A 2018 Marketplace poll found that just 31% of women felt that harassment was something they could report without fear. And a 2016 report found that three-quarters of people who do report experience retaliation.
In our interview, Zoey told me that, “It wasn’t until I quit that I got back to him and I was like, “This was inappropriate. I hope you never speak to somebody that you work with like this ever again.” But that took months.”
Unfortunately, for some interviewees in Hart’s study, sexually ambiguous interactions led to instances of sexual harassment, an assault that no amount of trajectory guarding can guarantee to prevent.
In fact, up to 85% of women report being sexually harassed at work. An estimated 80% of women who experience severe sexual harassment leave their job within two years. They are also more likely to move to different industries or reduce their work hours following incidents of harassment — shifts that can have immediate economic consequences as well as long-term implications on their career advancement.
And yet, most employers continue to respond to both ambiguous and explicit forms of harassment by downplaying or trivializing it, with victims rather than perpetrators suffering the consequences.
While the onus is on the workplace, leadership and perpetrators to shift this dynamic, naming these experiences can be a powerful step in coping with them. Harassment in the workplace has been associated with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and lowered self-esteem, leading to work withdrawal, career instability and poor mental and physical health. But naming and verbalizing our experiences has been shown to produce therapeutic effects in the brain – making feelings of anger, sadness and pain less intense.
So whether you’re a junior associate or a senior manager, it’s important to understand what trajectory guarding is and how to recognize it. You might save your career, or even your life.
Has an ambiguously sexual interaction ever happened to you? What did you do about it? Share your experience in the comments or reach out to Too Ambitious. We want to know.
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Image: baona/ E+ via GettyImages
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